It started with pink dresses and hair ribbons, then progressed to her shoes, her petticoats. The canopies on her bed were changed to magenta, as was the upholstery on her armchair, her window seat. The only threads in her sewing box were shades of pink.
She used pink roses, peonies and carnations in the bouquets she brought her father every Monday morning. While he was still finishing breakfast, she would run out, pick them and arrange them in a crystal vase on the very corner of his dark oak desk. He would walk into the room every Monday morning, sigh and say, “Oh, Aurelia.” Then he would shut the door.
“Why is Papa never happy anymore?” she asked Aunt Iseult once. They were having a picnic underneath a lone chestnut tree on a hill. The hamper was behind them, their legs stretched out in front and their eyes were on the doll’s house sized manor below.
“He really loved your mother,” Aunt Iseult explained. “So now that she’s gone, he doesn’t like the world very much. He still loves you though.”
“I never hear him say so,” Lia said. She continued to stare straight ahead towards the manor, listening to the birds. She could never hear Aunt Iseult’s thoughts, except when her aunt was asleep. Her dreams were full of tears.
“Lia, I think we should talk about your Hearing.” Iseult gently tugged on her niece’s hands, turning Lia so they sat facing each other. They both crossed their legs under their skirts, their knees just touching. “What do you know about it?”
“I know Mama said it was a gift.”
“It is a gift. But some people are very jealous of gifts. You see, gifts only go to those with fairy blood. My grandmother, your great grandmother, was a fairy. So we have a little bit of fairy inside us. Some people hate fairies, and some people don’t mind fairies but hate people who have fairy blood. Your gift might make them very uneasy. Do you know what it is exactly that you Hear?”
Lia chewed the inside of her cheek for a second. “I can hear everything in the manor, or any space about as big as a manor. And I can hear people thinking. But usually only if their thoughts are very loud. Or if I’m listening very closely.”
“And some people don’t like the idea that somebody other than them can hear their thoughts. They might want to hurt you, or even kill you. Which is why you have to keep your Hearing a secret. Do you understand me?”
Lia nodded. “I’ll try.”
She kept that. She never pointed out when someone was lying because she could Hear the truth. She tried not to listen to people’s secret thoughts too much, in case they would discover that she knew the secret and be angry. Whenever there were other people in the room, she always talked out loud and listened carefully to what they were saying with their mouths and not their minds.
As Lia got better at secret keeping, so Aunt Iseult adjusted her education. She had a riding master, a drawing tutor, a lady to teach her the pianoforte. A schoolmistress came from the village two afternoons a week to teach her history and geography and mathematics. Aunt Iseult brought Lia down to the dressmaker with her so that she could be measured for new gowns in magenta and coral, with rosebuds sewn onto the hems. Aunt Iseult instructed her how to act at a tea party, how to use every knife and fork laid out at dinner- and how to keep quiet about her gift.
“Do you have a gift?” she asked once while Iseult was doing a complicated braid in her hair.
“I used to,” Aunt Iseult said. Lia couldn’t hear her sadness, but she could see it, around Iseult’s eyes and in the way her hands stayed at her task. “I gave it away.”
Aunt Iseult turned her face to the floor and said nothing more.
After a few years nearly everything Lia owned was pink, the carpet of her bedroom, her horse’s reins. A few things had to stay the colour they always were, her saddle, her stockings, her winter cloak. No matter how much she begged her father refused on these matters.
“You’ve made her brain soft,” Lia heard him say to Iseult one day.
“Better a soft brain than a hard heart,” Iseult replied.
“What a pity you have both,” he said.
Her seventeenth birthday was approaching. At seventeen, she would enter society. Aunt Iseult was confident Lia could pass as ungifted. She could be betrothed, married, bear children. Lia was not so sure, but she knew that her entire life had been geared towards this moment- the moment she became useful to her family.
There was a party, a whirlwind of colours and cousins, cutlery and curtseys and Lia didn’t remember names or titles. She was anxious and couldn’t block out the thoughts, strangers’ secrets she never wanted to know. The thoughts came thick and fast from the crowd and Lia had to go out into the crisp evening. There was fairy music in the woods, eerie and melancholy, painfully beautiful. She couldn’t hear fairy thoughts. Perhaps she could enter their society instead, a place where there was only music.
“Lia,” Iseult whispered from a different set of doors. She wasn’t allowed to go to the party at all. She was grinning. “Come here, I have a gift.”
In the cold, dark dining room, she handed Lia a parcel of tissue paper. It crinkled in Lia’s fingers as she unwound its contents. It was a winter cloak, feather soft and clean, folded up neatly, the colour of the dawn.