Grace and Fury – Tracy Banghart

SERINA TESSARO STOOD on the steps of the fountain in Lanos’s central piazza flanked by nine other girls her age, all in their finest gowns. Her brilliant smile never dimmed, even as the thick, coalhazed twilight tried to choke her. Signor Pietro gave each girl his narrow-eyed appraisal. He had known all of them from birth, watching and gauging and critiquing their potential. His salt-and-pepper mustache twitched as he pursed his lips. The dark hulk of the mountains loomed over the soot-stained city, blocking all but a few final rays of daylight. Serina’s family stood in shadow at the edge of the crowd. Only Nomi’s flushed cheeks caught the light. Serina could see plainly, even from this distance, the fury in her sister’s eyes. Their brother, Renzo, kept a hand on Nomi’s arm, as if to hold her back. Serina couldn’t read his expression, but she was sure it didn’t echo their parents’ open anticipation. Signor Pietro turned away from the girls on the steps of the fountain to address the people gathered in the piazza. As Serina waited for his decree, her heart clamored in her throat, but she hid her excitement beneath a veneer of serenity. Her mother had taught her the importance of masks. “This year the Heir will choose his first Graces.

Each province is allowed to send one girl to vie for this honor. As magistrate for Lanos, it falls to me to choose which of our daughters will travel to Bellaqua.” Maybe he paused. Maybe he drew out the suspense. But time didn’t slow the way Serina expected it to. He just kept saying words in his even, methodical voice, and the words were, “I have chosen Serina Tessaro.” The crowd applauded. Mama Tessaro’s eyes lit with hope. Nomi’s face fell. Numb, Serina stepped forward and curtsied deeply.

She couldn’t believe it. She was going to Bellaqua. She was getting out of grimy, stifling Lanos. Serina had imagined it so many times. Riding the train for the first time, down through the lush countryside of Viridia. Seeing the Superior’s city, with its canals and vast marble palazzo. Meeting the Heir. He would be handsome, like a prince in a fairy tale. And if he chose her, she’d live in a beautiful palace for all her days. She’d never have to work in a textile factory like her mother did, or become a servant like her cousin.

Nor would she be forced into a marriage with whichever man could pay the most for her hand. She would go to glittering balls and want for nothing. Her family would want for nothing, and even Nomi would live a better life, for all her resistance. As Serina’s handmaiden, Nomi would get to leave Lanos too. Signor Pietro shook her father’s hand as Serina descended the stairs. The crowd slowly dispersed. The other girls didn’t speak to her as they rejoined their families. By the time Serina reached hers, Mama Tessaro was quivering with excitement. She’d once been as tall as Serina, but decades of hunching over her sewing machine at the textile factory had twisted her back. “My flower, I am so proud of you.

” She hugged Serina tightly. “You have brought our family great honor.” Nomi made a noise in her throat. Serina shot her a quelling look. If Signor Pietro heard Nomi speak out against the Heir or the Superior in any way, he’d have her flogged. He’d already threatened to do so during one of Serina’s physical examinations last month, when Nomi had muttered, “This is ridiculous,” under her breath as she watched the signor inspect Serina in her shift. “Thank you, Signor,” Papa said, bowing. The magistrate strode off to his carriage, his short scarlet cape fluttering in the sallow glare of lamplight. “Let’s go,” Papa said. “We’ve only two days to prepare for your journey.

” He led the way to a street in the opposite direction of the signor. They only lived a few blocks away from the central piazza. Serina drew in a breath of dingy Lanos air and turned to follow. Papa hadn’t even looked at her. She tried to gauge his mood from his stiff shoulders. Was he proud of her, like Mama was? She couldn’t tell. She never could with him. Renzo bumped her arm. “You look beautiful,” he said. “The Heir would be a fool not to choose you.

” She shot him a grateful smile. Renzo understood how much this meant to her. To all of them. With his tall, sturdy form, it was easy to forget he was younger than Serina by almost two years. He and Nomi were twins but didn’t look much alike, except for their amber-brown eyes, several shades lighter than Serina’s. Nomi lagged behind her siblings, scuffing her feet like a sulking child. Serina dropped back so she could walk with her sister. “This is good news,” Serina murmured, too quiet for their parents to hear. The streets they walked were empty now; everyone else had already returned to their homes after the big announcement. Flickers of lamplight threw splotches of yellow against the rough stone walls of the houses they passed.

The dirty cobbles were uneven underfoot, but Serina never faltered. Her copper-colored gown whispered against the stone. “I don’t want to talk right now,” Nomi growled, obviously not as worried about keeping her voice down. Serina wanted to throttle her. “How can you not be pleased? I truly don’t understand. We get to leave this ugly city. We might get to live in the palace. Being my handmaiden will be easier than taking care of the whole family the way you do now, and we won’t have to worry about having enough food. Mama will be able to stop working.…” Nomi walked faster, as if trying to physically escape Serina’s words.

“That’s the difference between you and me,” she said, her hands clenched at her sides. A dusky pink flush bloomed across her face. “I don’t think this city is ugly. And I don’t believe in fairy tales. I don’t want—” “Everything you do want is beyond our reach,” Serina snapped, tired of Nomi’s anger. “You will never be able to choose your own job or your own husband, or… or anything else. It just doesn’t work that way.” It wasn’t Serina’s fault that Viridia gave women so few choices. Serina had learned long ago that fighting didn’t change anything, so she made the best of what she had. And what she had was the chance to become one of the most revered women in the whole country.

If the Heir chose her, she could become the mother of a future Superior. “Nothing should be beyond our reach. That’s my whole point,” Nomi said. They were still swept up in the tide of their argument when they reached the creaking door of the family’s small apartment. Renzo held it open for them, his sardonic look making it clear he’d heard them. “Nomi, Papa wants you to start dinner.” Nomi stormed into the small living room without answering. Serina followed, pulling her skirts close so they wouldn’t catch on the doorframe. Serina saw her sister’s gaze linger on Renzo’s schoolbooks, still open on the rough-hewn dining table. She nudged Nomi’s arm in warning.

When she didn’t move, Serina cleared her throat. Nomi looked up at her sister, but it took a split second for her eyes to focus. Then she shook her head, as if to clear it, and hurried to the sink. Serina glanced over at their parents, but they were speaking quietly by the little potbellied stove. They hadn’t noticed the exchange. There was a lot they didn’t notice. Serina and Nomi were like any other daughters in the cold, industrial town of Lanos. But Serina had her beauty. And Nomi had her secret. Serina prayed she was enough to catch the eye of the Heir, for her sake as well as her sister’s.

But as Renzo closed the door, the hollow thud echoed into Serina’s bones. She shivered, suddenly filled with fears she couldn’t name. TWO NOMI THE RICKSHAW DRIVER pedaled madly, undeterred by jarring gaps in the cobbles and wide-eyed pedestrians. All the rocking and bumping unsettled Nomi’s stomach. Or maybe it was the heavy, humid air that smelled of rotting fish. No. She knew what twisted every muscle and sucked all the breath from her lungs. The closer they got to the palazzo, the more fervently she wished they were heading the other way. It had been less than a fortnight since Signor Pietro had chosen Serina, and the days had skittered by as quickly and painfully as this last, rickety ride. Nomi winced as Serina’s grip on her arm tightened, her nails digging in as the carriage careened over a small bridge, teetering frighteningly close to the edge.

Renzo’s cheeks paled. He took up the entire seat across from them, his long legs folded up like a spider’s to fit in the small space. Too soon, the rickshaw slammed to a halt at the edge of the grand piazza. Nomi’s stomach gave a sickening lurch. At the far edge of the teeming square, a wide canal glittered in the sun, dotted with flocks of long black boats. Beyond it, on its own island, the Superior’s palazzo rose into the sky like a golden sunrise. Nomi took a few deep breaths. Under different circumstances, she would have enjoyed seeing Bellaqua. But not like this. Not today.

Renzo shoved some money at their driver before helping Nomi and Serina out of the rickshaw. Nomi’s knees trembled even after she’d made it to solid ground. “Time to say goodbye,” Renzo said. He was trying to sound strong, but his voice shook. Of course, Serina kept her head bent, the dutiful sister, as he pulled her into a polite, fleeting embrace. But Nomi would have none of that. She hugged her brother tightly, burying herself in his jacket, breathing in his familiar, reassuring scent. Her legs and stomach settled, but only a little. He would wait in Bellaqua until the announcement. She might see him again in a few hours, or never.

She couldn’t bear the uncertainty. “Should I plan to spirit you two to freedom, if Serina is chosen?” Renzo whispered jokingly, but with an edge to his voice. If only. Nomi tightened her arms around him before drawing away. They shared an agonized look. “Come on, Nomi,” Serina said quietly. A man in black-and-gold livery was holding out a hand to her. With bowed head, she placed her fingers on his arm. Nomi’s breath seized. She wasn’t ready.

Renzo seemed to understand. With an attempt at a smile, he kissed her cheek and hurried away so she didn’t have to be the one to leave him. The parting cut her like a blade. “Come on,” Serina murmured again. Reluctantly, Nomi turned to follow her sister through the crowd. The black-and-gold-clad gondolier led them across the piazza to the grand canal, where his gondola bobbed gently with the others. He helped Serina and then Nomi into his boat, settling them onto soft, gold-threaded cushions. All around them, scores of other girls floated over the water in their own gondolas, their colorful dresses marking them as prospects. The crowd watching the procession of girls laughed and cheered. A child threw handfuls of flowers into the air as Nomi and Serina pushed away from the edge of the canal.

Serina smiled at the attention, at the soaring pink petals. Nomi couldn’t stand her sister’s serene expression. It was so at odds with the turmoil twisting her stomach. She wanted to leap onto shore, run back to Renzo, and flee the city. She wanted to do anything but float toward the Superior’s palace like an unwilling sacrifice to an ancient god. But that was the problem: Serina was willing. Nomi wiped at her eyes, trying to keep her tears in check. Her other hand grasped their small bag of belongings in a death grip. “What if we never see Renzo again?” “It’ll be a blessing,” Serina replied. But there was a tremble in her voice.

Nomi noted the furrow between her sister’s brows as she stared at the approaching palace, the hint of tension at the corner of her mouth. Maybe she wasn’t as serene as she appeared. More softly, Serina added, “You know that.” “But I can wish things were different,” Nomi muttered just as the gondola bumped against the rim of the canal. Some of the girls had already disembarked at the base of the steps leading to the Superior’s palazzo. The cypress trees lining the canal were hung with tiny bells that tinkled in the breeze. As Nomi climbed the massive staircase to the palazzo, the last in a long line of girls in bright, fine dresses, she cursed the Heir waiting at the top. He wouldn’t notice her—or any of the other handmaidens—but her whole life hinged on whether he noticed her sister. In front of Nomi, Serina floated up the stairs, her waist-length chestnut hair loose and shining. Her gown, an intricate patchwork of different fabrics that their mother had painstakingly made, rippled like water.

She betrayed no hint of weariness, no indication that they’d just spent six long days on a shuddering train, a night in a threadbare hotel room, and a day frantically preparing her for the Heir’s ball. Nomi clutched her bag tighter. She tried not to trip on the marble stairs as she snuck a glance up at the Superior, sickly thin and severe, and his two sons. Malachi, the Heir, wore a white uniform embroidered in gold that accentuated his muscular frame. His broad cheekbones and trim brown hair gave his face a hard edge, but his full lips eased its severity. Even she had to concede he was handsome, if terrifying. He watched his prospective Graces closely, his dark eyes boring into the tops of their heads as they passed. The younger son, Asa, gazed out toward the canal. His dark hair was longer than his brother’s, and disheveled, as if he frequently ran his hands through it. Nomi should have bowed her head when she reached the men, but she didn’t bother.

As she’d expected, no one noticed her. All three stared at Serina’s gleaming hair and swaying hips as she passed. Sometimes it irked Nomi, the way Serina drew every gaze. But this time, Nomi was happy to be invisible. She didn’t envy her sister’s task or the weight of the Superior’s icy glare. When Nomi reached the shade of the veranda, out of sight of the men, she relaxed a fraction. The prospective Graces and their handmaidens proceeded into an ornate gallery with a set of heavy carved wooden doors at its end. Nomi and Serina picked a spot next to the wall. “Let me check your makeup one more time,” Nomi said. As much as she wished she were anywhere else, she still had a job to do.

They both did. “What do you think of our chances?” Serina murmured, glancing sidelong at the nearest girl, whose handmaiden was rearranging her vivid orange gown. Nomi was tempted to tell Serina what she really thought: that they should leave, right now, without a word. That they should go back to Lanos, or better yet, somewhere else entirely, somewhere they could decide what they wanted to do all day, instead of Nomi’s endless chores and Serina’s hours of training in etiquette and dancing. But Nomi knew the truth as well as Serina did: A place like that didn’t exist. No matter where they went, their choices were the same: They could be factory workers, or servants, or wives. Unless Serina became a Grace. In Viridia, Graces were held as the highest standard of beauty, elegance, and obedience. What all little girls were meant to aspire to. For Nomi and Serina, becoming a Grace and a handmaiden was a ticket to a different life, but in this they disagreed: Serina believed this different would be better, and Nomi did not.

“I think we’re going to lose something either way,” Nomi said as she rubbed out a tiny smudge of kohl at the corner of Serina’s eye. “Don’t say that,” Serina said warningly. “Don’t—” “Don’t think about you parading before the Heir, a possession for him to own?” she whispered. She smoothed a section of Serina’s hair, her hands trembling. She and her sister both had brown hair, olive skin, and their mother’s high cheekbones. But somehow, their shared features combined to make Serina as rich and lovely as Nomi was slight and inelegant. Serina was extraordinary; Nomi was not. “It’s not about becoming his possession, it’s about winning his admiration and desire,” Serina said through an artificial smile, for the benefit of the girls who’d glanced their way. “This is our chance to have a better life.” “What makes it better?” Nomi shook her head.

Anger surged uselessly in her chest. “Serina, we shouldn’t have to—” Serina stepped even closer. “Smile at me, like you’re happy. Like you’re just like the rest of these girls.” Nomi stared into her sister’s eyes. Serina was so beautiful like this, with anger staining her cheeks. She was so much more interesting when she wasn’t strapping herself into a corset and a demure, downcast grin.

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