Seventeen years ago, the wrong decision was made. I’m still paying the price for it.
Shira closed her eyes and tilted her head back. The rush of being swung around overcame her. The satiny feeling of her skirts being rustled against her arms and legs and the feeling of her partner’s strong arms at her waist were a comfort.
But then the song ended.
The poor lad who was her dancing partner immediately dropped his arm from her waist and hand from hers, sending a quick glance at her parents. She gave him a warm smile and curtsied, thanking him for the dance. He responded with a bow and, after a final look at her, he rushed back into the crowd.
Shira sighed. She readjusted her skirts and attempted to fluff her hair before remembering that it was pinned up.
She looked around the room. Temporarily distracted by Shira’s mother, the crowd’s eyes were far from her. She was invisible. But not as invisible as her sister in the corner.
Flouncing as if she were a child, Shira made her was across the ballroom floor to her sister. Keira – who Shira claimed was an inch shorter – was in the literal corner of the room. Her skirts were scrunched against the walls around her and she had a plate of food in her hands, though most of it was in her mouth already.
Shira dramatically flopped against the wall. “Sister, dear, why art thou hiddeth in the corner?”
“You said it wrong,” Keira said with a full mouth and an accompanied eye roll. “But to answer your question, I’m hiding from them.” Keira stabbed a finger in the general direction of the crowd.
“I know what you mean.” Shira, while she enjoyed these sorts of social functions at first, found them tedious and some what depressing after a short while.
Keira laid her plate gently on a nearby table. “I really don’t envy you.”
“What? Why?” Shira was distracted already. Her eyes were searching the crowd, though she didn’t know what for. Absently, she rubbed a hand along her stomach where her corset squeezed her mid-section with a great force.
“Oh you know what I mean.” Keira sighed. “Well, we should probably get back out there. Mother’s about to make a speech.” Keira held out her hand for his sister and Shira took it. Without a final forlorn look at her plate of food behind her, Keira led Shira back out into the throng of people.
Sure, enough, their parents were up on the stage in front of the gathered. The youngest of the three children – Aristotle – was hiding near one of the curtains lining the stage. The sight made Shira smile. None of the three girls were especially social.
Mother was smiling as she talked in a loud voice to the people. “And as you know, this is no every-day occasion. Today, my dear girls are having their birthday-” she was cut off by loud, echoing applause “-so I would like to invite up my two sweets, Keira and Shira.” Again, the loud noise as, hands linked, the girls made their way through the parting crowd and up onto the stage.
The surrounding torches were flickering from all of the volume and the candles in the chandelier were casting suspicious-looking shadows all around them. All of the eyes on Shira gave her conflicting feelings. She loved the attention – as a middle child that was just a given – but she also shied away from the public eye as much as possible. People were brutal.
Mother turned an adoring eye towards the girls. “My darlings, these past seventeen years have been a true blessing. I cannot begin to explain the mother’s joy that I had when you two were given to me from the gods above. The day that you two were born…”
Okay, Mother, we really don’t need to get into all of this… Shira looked out at the crowd again, feeling embarrassed. Luckily, her Mother wrapped up without too much more humiliation.
“Now, I’ve kept you long enough. Get back to your merriment and do wish my daughters a happy birthday. And remember that the Official Announcement is tomorrow! That is all.” She curtsied to the crowd as they all politely applauded. She settled into her throne, beside her husband who was a generally silent man in a crowd. Perhaps that was where Shira and her sister had gained it from.
There was a whole procession line waiting to give their wishes to Shira and her sister. It was somewhat draining.
Keira was a natural, though. She knew the right way to look a person in the eye and how to clasp their hand. Which cheek to kiss. The right words to say. Next to her, Shira was a floundering child. Clumsy. She mainly just smiled her dimpled smile and hoped for the best.
And that was how it had always been. Keira was the people’s favorite. She was relateable and warm. Her smile lit up a room. And though Shira had that same smile, it just wasn’t the same. In their childhood schemes, she had always been the brains. She loved – or at least, excelled at – politics and studies. The unseen actions behind everything. The one human indulgence she loved was dancing. Where there were no words and very few rules, depending on the dance. Where there was freedom.
When there was a brief break in the line, Shira cast a furtive glance toward her younger sister. Aristotle stuck her tongue out and slipped deeper into the curtains doing what she called “people watching.” Oh, how Shira envied her!
But really, she shouldn’t complain. All of these people that Shira didn’t know, but they adored her and her sister. They showered gifts on the two girls – which they, in turn, piled on the table behind them – and sang words of praise.
Shira, especially, got many compliments on her dress. Though in actuality, she had had little say in it. Her mother had helped design and therefore chosen the dress. It was a very pretty thing. Strapless and smooth. It was tight at the bodice – thanks to a very restricting corset – and flowed down from her high waist in elegant ripples. It was a light green with small pearls dotting the whole thing. Very royal.
In contrast, Keira’s was a dark purple with long sleeves made out of lace and the whole affair being a lot more poofy.
Respite came nearly an hour later when the line had dwindled down as people had gone to mingle, dance, and eat. The only true joys in life, some said.
Shira longed to dance. To let her feet take over as she laid her head against some strange gentleman’s shoulder. To be carried away.
So she was a romantic. Big deal.
With dragging feet, she made her way over to her parents. She leaned against her father’s throne.
“Is it everything that you ever dreamed?” he asked her, a twinkle in the eye.
“Yes. All it needs to be completed is a hit to the back of the head.”
Her mother was horrified. “Shira! Stop that!”
But Shira and her father shared a knowing smile. She really didn’t hate the party. After all, half of it was in her honor, she just really enjoyed toying with her mother.
“Although, Mother, I do think that you should make Aristotle go out and socialize more. At thirteen, she has to find a boy of her own soon enough. And it would do her so much good.” What that translated to: if I have to put on a pretty smile and waltz around, then so does she. Her mother didn’t miss the meaning.
“She also isn’t the oldest,” she huffed, but with a sigh, Mother went off in search of Aristotle.
“Neither am I,” Shira whispered.
Seventeen years ago, Mother had lied to the whole kingdom. As was tradition, the eldest child – regardless of gender – became ruler. Sometimes it worked out, sometimes not, such as with her father. (Secretly, Shira thought that it was very lucky that he had found and married her mother. He would be a hopeless ruler on his own.) But her mother had given birth to twin daughters.
She had claimed that there had been a confusion, a mix-up so to speak, that they didn’t know which daughter was which, thus not knowing which was older and was to become ruler. Why did Mother do that, when, in fact, she knew exactly which daughter was which? She wanted it to be fair. She didn’t want to cheat one of her girls by only a matter of minutes. And thus her lie was conceived.
This had all been explained to the girls at a young age. Only a selective few knew of this deception, thus when Shira and Keira had been told this, they had kept a secret. How lucky were they to be part of this small conspiracy!
But as Shira left her father’s side and slipped off the stage, she couldn’t help but feel that her mother shouldn’t have been so fair and considerate of her infant daughters. Keira would have made a great monarchy. Much of Shira’s childhood problems would have been eliminated, and possibly a lot of her future ones, too.
Shira, though, knew her sister’s feelings.
Keira had absolutely no desire for the throne. She made a great public face and with her sharp mind could handle herself in nearly all situations, but she had no ambition. Unlike Shira.
Shira knew that she would make a great queen. At a young age she had taken a great interest in the running of the kingdom and had always been at her mother and father’s side during meetings. She had a mind for it. In one-on-one situations, she was even quite charming.
All of this together, the people of her kingdom could love her. Except one thing. It wasn’t just her. Since there was Keira – the one that they could always see the external, the friendliness of her personality – it made Shira look unworthy by her side. Lesser.
And so Shira could never be queen. The people had already chosen her sister based on looks and they would never change their minds.
Shira tried not to hold all of this against them. They didn’t truly know the girls, they didn’t know them inside and out. How could she help it if they made the wrong decision.
Guilt rose inside of her stomach. She looked around, feeling as if others could read her thoughts. She was committing the equivalent of treason in her mind. She was betraying her sister. What difference was it if she was speaking aloud or only just thinking it?
She blew out a breath, as if that could expel all of the thoughts inside her head.
Perhaps why she wished that Keira had gained the throne was that Shira felt that maybe that would be punishment enough for betraying her sister. Her kingdom.
She looked around the room. There, not fifteen feet away was a young gentleman unaccompanied by a woman. Shira marched right up to him. But before she could ask him to dance, someone tapped her on the shoulder.
Hot pricks were threatening her eyes. Shira rapidly blinked so as to try and hurriedly cover up. She refused to let the tears fall out of pride and the fact that her makeup was too exquisitely done to be messed up by some stupid water.
Shira turned to find a tall young man standing in front of her. He was sturdily built, if not a little awkward in gestures.
“If you’re asking for a dance, I would love to.”
That seemed to catch him off guard, which made Shira give a little melancholy smile. He caught himself quickly, though. She had to give him that. He held out his hand, and Shira took it. They got themselves in position as the musicians got ready for the next song. Shira new their playlist for the night, so she knew that it was a slow waltz.
As the aching beauty of a bow on string began, Shira felt her heart clench and the tears threaten to spill once again. She and the boy began to sway with the song. He was a decently good dancer, so she closed her eyes and allowed him to lead. She laid her head against his chest. She felt the quick intake of breath that he gave.
Nestled in the shirt covering his chest, she finally allowed the tears to spill. On her seventeenth birthday she was dancing at a ball crying in the arms of a stranger. Hadn’t that always been something that she had always dreamed of? And yet? And yet.
Shira lay in her bed, blankets piled atop of her. She was sweating buckets, but refused to move them. There was just something comforting about being surrounded by blankets.
She couldn’t lie, she had had a lot of fun opening the presents. She never would have said it aloud, but she loved to receive presents and having near a hundred of them from complete strangers … who had still picked out a gift specifically for her … was just so lovely. Made her feel special.
The rest of the night had been a dream, as well. Everything perfect. Her mother had done well.
But still, here she was, crying beneath her blankets. She had only minutest left of her seventeenth birthday – the party had lasted from early evening to nearly midnight – and she had spent the end of it crying. How pitiful was that?
“Shira, what are you doing?”
Quickly, she sniffed and dabbed at her eyes with one of her blankets; she had many to choose from. “Nothing. Just trying to sleep.”
The blankets were peeled back and instantly Shira was subjected to cruel, cold air. Aristotle was still in her party garb, the only thing amiss was that she had attempted to take out her hair and it was now a mess of knots and gems.
“Aris, what are you doing in here?”
“Well I was thinking,” Aristotle said, kicking off her shoes and burrowing her way into the pile of blankets, “for my seventeenth – ew, why are the blankets wet? – for my seventeenth I want it to be as grand as yours. Or grander. I haven’t decided.”
Shira moved over just enough for her sister to climb in, still not sure of her feelings of her sister interrupting her cry-fest. “You still have four years to figure that out. Is that why you came in?”
The answer was too fast.
“No, it’s not.” Shira turned away from Aristotle, hoping that she couldn’t see the tears tracking down her cheeks. Her makeup hadn’t been taken off and she was sure that it was now a huge mess on her face and blankets.
“Fine. I wanted to see your presents. But I couldn’t very well lead with that, now could I?”
“Look through them. I don’t care.”
But Aristotle didn’t move. After a few moments of silence – well, silence except for Shira’s heavy breathing – Aristotle laid her cheek on Shira’s bare shoulder. The feeling of her sister’s skin made her sniffle all the more.
“Are you … okay?”
“Yes … no.”
Shira didn’t want this to be happening right now. For heaven’s sake, Aristotle was the little sister! She couldn’t put all of this on her.
Just that one word. Okay. Shira couldn’t believe how incredibly lucky she was to have her little sister. To her merit, she didn’t burst into tears right there, but she felt a wave of sisterly love for Aristotle.
Shira sat up, sniffing again. “Let’s go look at those presents, shall we?”
And just like that, she felt better. Seeing the smile light up Aristotle’s face.
The presents had all been piled at one end of her room. She had opened almost all of them and there was still paper and ribbons scattered across the floor. Shira wasn’t exactly known for her cleanliness and her maid hadn’t had a chance to see the wreckage yet.
Aristotle plopped herself to the floor, though Shira hung back a little, watching her sister who was now carefully looking through each item. Many of the presents were stereotypical gifts – dresses with notes saying how they hoped that they could be tailored to fit her, beautiful jewelry, breathtaking paintings – but there were a few that were truly unique. Shira’s favorite had been a glass object. She wasn’t exactly sure what it was, but it was different and therefore special.
Eventually Shira’s heart thawed and she crouched next to her sister, re-fawning over all of the gifts with her. The excitement of each one coming on her anew.
It wasn’t until two thirty that Shira decided that it was late enough for Aristotle and that she needed to head to bed.
Aristotle made a valiant effort declaring her case, but in the end it wasn’t enough to sway Shira from her decision. She, herself, was falling asleep on her feet; the excitement of the night not quite enough to keep her up any longer.
“Okay, okay, but just another few moments!” Aristotle was on her feet, looking pleadingly at her sister.
“No, Aris, you need to go to bed! We have another full day tomorrow!”
“With more fancy dresses…” she mumbled. But then louder, “Can I have just one dance, Shira? Please?”
Shira looked at her sister. She always had a really hard time telling her no. “Fine. But just one. Okay?”
“Deal!” The look over Aristotle’s face was pure satisfaction.
Shira took her little sister’s hand and put her other over Aristotle’s waist – Shira taking the role of the gentleman.
“Did you have any special dances tonight?” As she said it, Aristotle wiggled her eyebrows.
“No, as a matter of fact, I didn’t.”
Actually, all of them had been special. At first thought, each dance blended together, becoming a sticky mass of recollection. But as she pressed through, she could recall each gentleman’s face, the weight of their hands, the color of their cravats, and, in some cases, the feel of their sweat. That, she could do without.
Shira twirled her sister in a spin that wasn’t in flow with the actual dance, but it made Aristotle giggle. “And what’s that suppose to mean, young lady?”
“I’m just saying I could use a brother, okay? Girls can be fussy sometimes.”
Fussy? Shira supposed that she couldn’t argue, since she had been crying in her bed little more than two hours before. “And you aren’t?”
“Oh no, I am. But see? I don’t have to put up with myself.”
“You’ve got it all worked. For being only thirteen.” Aristotle gave her a knowing smile. The little Divia. “Hey – why don’t you go and interrogate Keira? I’m sure she found herself a man.” Their dance to nonexistent music slowed to a stop.
“I already did. And her answer was no, as well.” Aristotle skipped over to Shira’s bed and picked her robe up off the floor from the foot of the bed. “She got more presents then you, you know. But I like yours better. Night, Shira. Happy birthday!”
Aristotle kissed Shira’s cheek then headed off to bed.
As a matter of fact, Shira already knew that Keira had gotten more presents. She had hated herself for it – perhaps that had been why she was crying – but she had counted up each present.
Back to a solemn mood, Shira silently picked up all of the wrapping trash and put it into a bag. While she was organizing all of her presents, something that she found soothed her tremendously, she found the glass object and felt like crying all over again.
Perhaps she didn’t have to be the favorite. If she got chosen as the queen, the people of the kingdom would just have to suck it up and learn to love her as who she was. But if it was Keira? The daughter who was rightfully entitled the throne? Shira would have to learn to get over her childhood jealousy.
Shira got to her feet and placed the glass trinket on her writing desk for safekeeping and slipped out of her room and down the hall to Keira’s chambers.
She knocked lightly and was relieved when Keira called for her to enter. Shira opened the door and nearly cried as soon as she stepped foot inside the room. She silently made a pact to never get angry with her sister again. She knew that she wouldn’t stick to it, but in the moment it didn’t matter.
Keira took one look at her sister, and gestured for her to climb into bed with her.
Shira rushed to her sister’s side and tears welled in her eyes. She hugged her sister close to her, smelling Keira’s hair. The familiar scent was comforting.
“I’m scared. About tomorrow.” The whispered words barely made it past Shira’s throat. Everything would change. One of them would become queen and a whole life’s training would become worthless for the other. Their lives had always led up to that moment.
“Me too, Shira. Me too.”
And they cried in each other’s arms.