I can't say my first meeting with Lady Violette Von Rhinestadt was a particularly graceful one. Passing out with a nosebleed right in front of someone you just met, it turns out, is incredibly embarrassing. Especially when the other person is still nice to you afterwards.
To be fair, I am a bit of an awkward aardvark and I was no different as a ridiculously tall ten year old, crammed into a blue dress that was three sizes too small and nervously sweating at her baptism. My parents had done their best, but fancy clothes were expensive and my parents wanted something that I could share with my younger sister. Share was an overstatement though; I looked like a monkey wearing a doll’s dress.
The cathedral I was to be baptized in was a huge old thing, built to impress even the wealthiest of noblemen. It was one of the few remaining bastions of the Church of the Holy Goddess; a religion that once clutched the Empire in its grip, but had lost nearly everything thanks to a major reformation and a rather nasty schism. Now it was a shadow of itself, clutching onto the remaining few Duchies it was allowed to exist in and glaring at the reformed Church of The Holy Mother that had taken its place everywhere else. Still, one would have never guessed; the Duke of Rhinestadt was nothing if not a traditionalist, and made sure the church had everything it needed within his sphere of influence. Including an expensive cathedral.
The place was packed, filled with eager parents of every child between the ages of one and five in the city. The baptism was held every five years for the children of commoners, and so everything from babies to over excited toddlers could be found in the nicest clothes they could afford.
But, like everything else in my life, I was the exception. The last time the baptism was held, I was struggling to breathe from a rather nasty illness, alongside my poor mother who was suffering an unfairly difficult birth of my younger siblings. My father decided to wait until we were both healthier, now leaving me as the only ten year old in the city yet to be baptized. But in retrospect, it was that decision that ended up changing the course of my life forever.
For my parents though, it meant that I could look after my adorable twin siblings, Adelina and Albert, during the ceremony. Because they were five years younger, they were a rather excitable pair and had a bad habit of wandering off when they got bored. I could easily forgive them because in their matching white outfits, chubby freckled cheeks and dark red hair they looked criminally adorable. But, as their proud older sister, I had to prove to my parents I could look after them and thus insisted that their cute chubby little hands never left my giant clumsy ones.
Not that they would have wandered off this time. The combination of a noisily crowd, the heavily gilded priests and the strange looks we got from the other kids all intimidated them enough to cling as tightly as they could to my dress. To be fair, if I didn’t have the responsibility of looking after them I’d be terrified as well, but a powerful desire to protect them overpowered any fear of my own. I glared right back at the rude children until they looked away, and tightly held my siblings’ hands every time a scary looking priest told us where to stand. I would be the reliable older onee-chan they could trust.
Onee-chan… wait, where did that word come from?!
I shook my head as a minor wave of dizziness overcame me, and blinked a couple of times. Apparently I was more nervous than I thought; my brain was suddenly making up words now. Words that felt weirdly… familiar.
“Hey! Girl! It’s time to go!”
I looked at the priest snapping his fingers at me, then flushed in embarrassment as I realized I had been spacing out. I led my worried looking siblings over to the line of children standing at the entrance to the nave of the cathedral. They were entering one by one as their names were called, walking down the aisle until they reached a fat old bishop. He poured water over their heads, muttered a blessing or two, then sent them off to sit in the apse. It was your typical knock-off ceremony of a western monotheistic religion.
Huh? Wait, what does that mean?!
More strange words wormed their way into my brain, causing another wave of dizziness to overcome me. My little sister looked up at me with a look of concern.
“Awre you okay, big thsis?” asked Adelina with a heavy lisp.
“I’m… fine. I’m fine! And what did Mum say about lisping?”
“...she said not to. She said it sounds like I’m making fun of Al...”
“No lisping okay?” I scolded her. “Even if you’re just trying to make Al feel better.”
“Ith’s okay thsis. You can lispths if you wanth to,” answered her brother from my other side, the one with the actual lisp.
I heaved a sigh. “Mum said you have to practice talking properly, okay? Both of you.”
“Okay…” was the slightly disgruntled reply. I nodded, proud of myself for completing my sisterly duties.
“Announcing Albert, Freya and Adelina, from the family of Richter!”
It was suddenly our turn, and I found myself walking down the aisle as thousands of uninterested eyes stared at us. Except two of course; I could see my mother nearly jumping with excitement as my father tried to hold back tears in the distant corner. It was sweet, but neither I nor my siblings shared their joy; we just wanted to get it all over with.
Which, fortunately, did not take long. The elderly bishop poured his water over our heads, then with a half-hearted blessing sent us off to stand with the others at the front of the cathedral.
This was when I realized that the worst part of the ceremony wasn’t the annoying priests, or creepy stares; it was the wait. Standing, on a hard stone floor, for nearly three hours as every other child went to receive their blessings. It was like the world’s worst graduation ceremony, where the graduates were a bunch of scared toddlers, the microphone was broken and there were no seats.
Whatever a microphone is…
I gritted my teeth as another wave of dizziness washed over me, this time accompanied by the slight sting of a migraine. Albert gave me a look of worry from where he sat in my arms; I had begun holding up the twins one at a time to give their feet a rest. Refusing to show a sign of weakness, I changed my grimace into a smile.
“Almost over now Al. There’s just the Duke’s daughter left,” I whispered to him.
“Puth me down thhen,” he whispered back. I did so while trying to hide a sigh of relief; the truth was I really wasn’t feeling great.
“Announcing The Lady Violette Von Rhinestadt, the daughter of His Grace the Duke of Rhinestadt!!” The announcer’s voice was far more bombastic and excited than he was for anyone else, though that was to be expected. The atmosphere of the entire church shifted from boredom to an intense excitement as everyone craned their necks to get a glimpse at the Duke’s only daughter.
Eager murmurs rippled through the church as a tiny little girl gradually came into view, walking down the aisle completely alone. From where I stood, she looked like a tiny little doll; fragile and vulnerable to the weight of the stares pressing down on her. Her dress was beautifully constructed, full of expensive black lace and lavender silk that matched her eyes perfectly. Her dark black hair was long and lucious, and carefully arranged into a braid that reached the small of her back.
As I watched her approach the priest, I found myself growing incredibly self conscious. She was everything I wasn’t; she was noble and proud, while I was common and poor. She was small and graceful, where I was tall and clumsy. My hands were suddenly too big, my legs long and disgusting. She was the picture perfect image of an ideal daughter, and I was the complete antithesis of her. I felt like a total oaf as I watched her receive her blessing, and suddenly all my pride as a brave older sister vanished into thin air.
And as if to humiliate me further, as the priest finished his blessing a flash of bright purple light suddenly lit up the room. Gasps of surprise and excitement echoed around the room as the light dimmed, revealing the source to be an intricate glowing crest that glowed through the clothing covering Violette’s chest. An eager silence filled the space as the crowd held their breath; a miracle was happening before their very eyes.
Magic was something most commoners had never seen before. Mages were beyond rare; they were practically non-existent, and the few that did appear were born only to noble blood. Nonetheless they were practically worshipped by the masses as messengers from the Goddess herself, and the proof of her blessing was to be found somewhere on their body that revealed itself upon receiving baptism.
This was the proof of Violette’s magic power; the strength and nature of which was typically determined by the shape and colour of the crest. At least, it would’ve been proof, if it wasn’t fake.
I let out a slight groan as another wave of dizziness washed over me. I was starting to feel sick to my stomach as strange ideas jumped into my head from nowhere. Somewhere in my brain, a tiny voice was screaming at me that the crest that blazed before my eyes was fake. There was no reason, no logic to this, and yet I was growing increasingly convinced that it wasn’t real; Violette had no magic at all. And trying to think about it only made my headache worse.
“Lady Violette has been blessed by the Holy Goddess! Let us all give our thanks for this auspicious occasion! All hail the Goddess!” rumbled the bishop, his voice excited but far from surprised.
“All Hail!” chorused the audience in awed voices as the Duke’s daughter stood up and walked towards the group of children we were a part of. I couldn’t join in; I was desperately trying to rub my eyes as they swam dizzily about the room. I felt like I could collapse at any moment, but my thoughts were getting so disorganized that I could barely communicate.
But the shock of seeing her position herself right in front of me and my siblings brought me back into reality. Wait, what was she doing here? The source of my migraine was suddenly standing right in front of me!
The droning voice of the Bishop echoed out across the cathedral as he began his final blessings to conclude the ceremony. But my attention was only focused on Violette, as my mind struggled with strange thoughts that didn’t belong.
I watched her stand before the packed cathedral, the picture perfect image of poise and excellence of a fine young lady. Adelina and Albert were in absolute awe, staring at her like one would a goddess, but I was desperately trying to figure out why the scene in front of me felt so… weird. I stared at this perfect Duke’s daughter, and then I saw it: the barest hint of a tremble in the Duke’s daughter’s shoulders.
This little girl was absolutely terrified.
It would make sense; many seven year olds would freeze in terror under the attention of thousands of people. But I could tell this was something different. This wasn’t just nerves; this was the sort of terror one felt when one was all alone, and about to lose everything.
A deep sorrow filled me as I watched her try and suppress her trembling. This was a girl that was supposed to have everything; wealth, fame, friends and fiances. She was practically a princess. But through that wealth and power sat a deep vulnerability, one that would ruin her completely once it was discovered.
I-I didn’t know how I knew; it was another product of the dizziness that was threatening to overcome me. But what I knew for certain was that this girl was completely and utterly alone. She was unloved, by her family and without friends; a princess in an empty castle.
I couldn’t stand it.
Despite my pounding headache, despite the dizzy feeling that had been harassing me since I had entered the church, and despite whatever crime I as a commoner might be charged with, I reached out my hand and took hers. I could feel blood pouring from my nose as she spun around, the shock and fear visible on her face, but I only gave her a warm smile. Her expression changed to one of confusion as I whispered, a strange instinct guiding my words.
“It’s okay, Grace. I’ll always be on your side.”
That’s the last thing I remembered of my baptism before the ground suddenly rushed up to meet me.
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