“Can you imagine? They’re going to throw a ball for me tonight. A ball! For me! Tonight! Can you imagine?” Alainna sat up on the bed and beamed at Solea. “After all, why shouldn’t they? It is my birthday tonight. My sixteenth birthday!”
Solea glanced up at her from her writing and frowned briefly at the bed before returning to the paper. “Yes, a very nice gesture,” she said blankly, continuing to write.
“Of course, not that everybody gets a ball for a birthday party,” Alainna continued happily. “You probably won’t get a ball for your sixteenth birthday. After all, you’re not the Lady, like I am. But, what a nice gesture, don’t you think?” When Solea didn’t respond, she leaned over and squinted at what Solea had written. “Are you writing my paper yet? It’s due tomorrow.”
“Not yet,” Solea replied. “Still working on mine.”
“Well, you better work faster. Otherwise, you’ll miss the ball.” Alainna sighed heavily and clapped her hands. “A ball! For me! Just imagine.” Suddenly she frowned. “Do you think there will be any men there?”
Solea suddenly grinned and looked up from her work. “Father will be there,” she said brightly. “He said he was going to help bring in the wine.”
Alainna scowled at Solea. “You know exactly what I meant!” she snapped. “I meant men to meet! I will be sixteen, after all. Why, that’s old enough to marry! And if I am the Lady, that means that Diamea must have been reborn somewhere in this world, waiting for me.”
“I thought he didn’t have his memories either,” Solea said. “Isn’t he some random man now that nobody recognizes as Diamea? How should he know that he’s supposed to wait for you?”
Alainna glared at Solea. “He is supposed to wait for me! That’s what everyone says.” She flopped back on the bed, looking irritated. Then she laughed. “Wouldn’t it be funny if I met Diamea there at the ball? Just imagine!”
“I doubt it,” Solea said. “The headmistress is in charge of the guest list, remember? Though, if you would like, I can start wedding planning, just in case.”
Alainna groaned. “If the headmistress is in charge of the guest list, then there might not be any men at all. It’s irritating. You would think that men were poisonous by the way she keeps them out of our school. She’ll let in Black Swans in for a visit before she’ll bring in a man, and Black Swans are actually poisonous!” Alainna paused thoughtfully. “There are a bunch of Black Swans invited to the ball, aren’t there?”
“I think so,” Solea said, turning back to her writing.
Alainna sighed. “That’s what I thought. I think my mother said that your father was coming too.”
Solea pressed so hard on her quill that she made an inkblot. She cursed and glared at Alainna. “He’s your father too now, remember?” she said irritably, setting down her quill and fetching out her ink blotter from a drawer. “He adopted you! And of course he’s coming! He promised to help bring in the wine, remember?”
Alainna glared back at Solea. “I didn’t mean Theron! I meant your real father. Your Black Swan father. Uclepidies. Remember?”
Solea flinched at the words. “Oh,” she said lamely. “Him.” Her cheeks began to burn and there were many things that she wanted to say. But instead, she only said bitterly, “You mean your son? You can call him that just as easily, Lady. You don’t need to refer to him as my father.”
“Oh, stop being dramatic,” Alainna said crossly. “I didn’t mean any harm. You know I don’t have any memories of being their mother, even if I am the Lady. And you don’t need to be so condescending either! All I meant to say is that I think Mother said that Uclepidies was coming too. Though, I can’t imagine what he would do at a ball. It’s not as though he can move very easily. Can you imagine him dancing?”
“He’ll just sit by the fire and do nothing, just like he always does,” Solea snapped, poking at her paper and wishing the inkblot would dry faster so that she could ignore Alainna more easily.
“Perhaps,” Alainna said dismissively. Then she snorted. “Imagine, having a ball where Black Swans get preference over men. After Frenzy too! The whole idea is ridiculous.”
“They’re not just random Swans, they’re your children,” Solea reminded her. “Remember? You’re the Lady. You birthed them at the beginning of the world. That’s why they’re putting on this party in the first place. For you to meet them.”
“I know all that,” Alainna snapped. “Still, you would think that they would at least invite some other honored guests as well. Besides, how am I supposed to meet Diamea if I can’t ever meet up with anyone?”
“Isn’t Diamea supposed to meet with you and both of you are supposed to recognize that you were destined for each other at first sight and fall madly in love?” Solea said irritably. “I seem to remember hearing this conversation once or twice or a thousand times before.”
Alainna shot a look at Solea. “They probably do have some men there at the party,” she murmured. “They must! Why wouldn’t they? And who knows? Maybe Diamea will be there and we’ll fall in love and everything will happen just as it ought to. Wouldn’t that be nice?”
“Then you’ll run away with Diamea and never bother me with stupid papers again,” Solea said sarcastically. “And we’ll all live happily ever after!”
Alainna glared at Solea. “You shouldn’t sound too enthusiastic about me leaving. Besides, we’ll probably have to meet up more than we would both like. Since I am the Lady, then you are my granddaughter since Uclepidies is my son.”
Solea stared at Alainna in disbelief. The idea of being the granddaughter of Alainna, of all people, made her skin crawl. But she only said, “If you say so, Grandma.”
Alainna chose to ignore the last comment. “Of course, I suppose I shouldn’t begrudge the Black Swans too much,” she continued thoughtfully. “After all, they will probably have lovely presents for me. All twelve of the original Black Swans will be there, right? I’ve heard that they’re rich. I’ve heard that their lakesides are full of jewels and other beautiful things. I’m sure they’ll give me something beautiful. After all, I am the Lady.”
Solea poked her paper, realized that the inkblot had finally dried, and began writing furiously.
After a minute or two, Alainna said, “Your real father is one of the Twelve, isn’t he? Uclepidies? He’s probably very rich too. At least, he seems rich. He is rich, isn’t he?”
“I wouldn’t know,” Solea snapped. “We don’t talk with each other very often, if you haven’t already noticed.”
Alainna scowled at her. “There’s no need to be nasty to me! I know very well he’s not the best conversationalist. But still, I wonder. He gave Theron a mansion in the countryside, so I suppose that must mean that he must be rich! Though, that doesn’t help me figure out what he would give to me, the Lady.” She paused. “What was the nicest thing that he ever gave you?”
Alainna scowled. “That’s not what I meant, and you know it.”
Solea stopped writing and rubbed her hand. “Look, I’m trying to finish this paper,” she said. “I am not really in the mood for any substantial conversation right now.”
Alainna frowned at her. “You don’t have to act so offended. It was just an innocent question. I’m just trying to figure out what he’s going to get me, that’s all. After all, he hasn’t given me any gifts yet, but I’m sure he’ll give me something special today. After all, it is my sixteenth birthday. It’s a fair question.”
Solea slapped down her quill, turned around, and glared at Alainna. “A fair question?” She paused angrily. “You’re my stepsister. When we’re not stuck in this stupid boarding school, we live in the same house. And you don’t already know the answer?”
Alainna shrugged. “I always figured that Uclepidies gave you something when I wasn’t looking. At least, that’s what I always assumed. You always had different traditions than my family. I assume that he gives you gifts, doesn’t he? He is your father, after all.”
“No! He hasn’t given me anything.”
Alainna looked surprised. “Not even when I’m not around?”
Solea shook her head. “He hasn’t given me anything.”
Alainna shifted uncomfortably. “How terrible.”
Solea shrugged, picked up her quill, smoothing out the feathers, and tried to act unbothered. “I just learned that he was my real father about four years ago. Perhaps he gave me something when I was little and I don’t know. I haven’t asked and he hasn’t said anything about it.”
Alainna looked alarmed. “So there’s a chance that he won’t be getting me anything?”
“Sorry.” Solea turned back to her writing.
Alainna thought about it for a minute. “What about your other father? The human one. The one who raised you. Theron. I know he gives you gifts. Did he give you anything special that might have come from a Black Swan hoard? Any jewels? Diamonds? Anything precious?”
“As I said before, he’s your father now,” Solea reminded her, gritting her teeth. “And he’s given you gifts too.”
“He’s my stepfather,” Alainna said. “There’s a big difference. And I’m not talking about the usual sort of gifts for boring birthdays or the Celebration. I’m talking about fancy gifts. The sort of gifts that might come from a Black Swan’s hoard.”
Solea shrugged. “He gave me a nice little journal to write in once.”
Alainna made a face. “That sounds boring.”
“You would say that.”
There was a brief pause. Alainna glanced at Solea, who was still writing. For a minute, it was quiet. Then Alainna asked, “Have you finished my paper yet?”
Solea slammed her quill down. “I haven’t even finished my own! You keep distracting me!”
“Well, maybe you should work on mine first,” Alainna snapped. “Otherwise, mine won’t get done at all. Besides, it might motivate you to write out your paper faster if you have to do mine first.”
“Or maybe you should stop being lazy and write your own paper,” snapped Solea through gritted teeth.
“There’s no need to be judgmental,” Alainna sniffed. “Just because I am busy doing Lady stuff and you aren’t—”
“Lady stuff? Lady stuff! Is that what you call this?” Solea cried, gesturing to Alainna, who was sprawled out on her bed and crumpling up the blankets. “Coming into my room and bothering me with your prattling while I’m trying to work since I won’t be able to do anything tonight since I have to go to a stupid ball?”
Alainna stood up furiously. “Forgive me, I forgot that I’m not supposed to be excited for my own birthday,” she said sarcastically. “That’s your family’s tradition, isn’t it? To mope around and pretend that you were never born?”
Solea’s face turned pale. She stood up, walked to the door, and threw it open. “Get out of my room,” she said. “Now.”
Alainna stood up too. “Fine! You’re being a brat anyway. You’re just jealous that they’re throwing me, the Lady, a party, and not you, the Black Swan’s daughter! You’ve always been jealous of me. And now you’re being deliberately cruel to me, just because you’re jealous!”
“Me? Jealous?” Solea cried. “Why should I ever be jealous of you?”
“How many birthday parties have the Swans given you?” Alainna said.
Solea suddenly grew red. “I’ve never wanted a birthday party in my life!” she cried. “Unlike some people, I don’t like large parties where people fawn all over me because I’m not a complete narcissist!”
“People don’t throw parties for those reasons!” Alainna snapped. “People throw parties for other people to celebrate their special moments! And if you can’t understand that, then I’d venture to say that you’re the narcissist!”
Solea pointed to the open doorway. “Get. Out.”
“And this is why nobody wants to be friends with you!” Alainna continued in a louder voice. “You never do anything nice for other people. All you think about is yourself. It’s disgraceful, that’s what it is!”
Alainna walked out and slammed Solea’s door as hard as she could so that the whole building seemed to rattle. Solea heard several other girls open up their doors to see what had happened. And then Alainna said loud enough that even Solea, through her closed door, could hear it, “Ridiculous! The whole thing is ridiculous! She’s just jealous, that’s all. Jealous that they’re throwing a birthday party for me, the Lady, and not her, the Black Swan’s daughter!”
It was Alainna performing at her finest.
Solea seethed in anger. Part of her wanted to burst out of the room and scream at her that she would never be jealous of Alainna. She had no reason to be jealous of Alainna. After all, before Solea’s father — the human one — had married Alainna’s mother, Alainna and her mother had been homeless and living in a flower shop her mother had recently bought. Alainna had simply been just one of the many illegitimate children in the city.
But part of her also hated Alainna because Alainna was right. Solea was jealous of Alainna. After all, what had Solea gotten from being a Black Swan’s daughter? A short stint in prison for having the wrong blood, followed by a weak apology after the officials realized that they had imprisoned her unjustly.
It was Alainna’s birthday. She was turning sixteen. And the whole world would be celebrating.
After all, Alainna was the Lady.