The sun was starting to lower in the cobalt sky in the middle of the afternoon. Anoria told the coachman to prepare the carriage and left to buy clothing and perhaps a bottle of perfume while the servants prepared for lunch. Anastasia was supposed to stay in the kitchen to be watched by Maggie, but as usual she had managed to escape. She tended to sneak outside and wander among the orange trees, but this time her attention had been diverted by the front door slamming shut. Anoria’s slim figure had hurried through it and up to the bedroom she shared with Lord Aiden.
Anastasia ran up the stairs, down the dark corridor, and skidded into the room, shouting, “Mama, mama!” Anoria did not turn or move from where she was standing, head bowed, in front of the mirror. Having received no response, she added, “You’re back so early!”
Still, Anoria did not move or speak, hands white-knuckled and clutching the edges of the vanity. Her long, curling red hair was tied up in a messy bun, pins slowly detaching themselves. They slid down wisps of hair onto her fair, slender shoulders.
“Mama?” She tentatively moved closer, trying to see Anoria’s face.
“Anastasia, go back to Maggie,” Anoria finally said.
“Mama, why aren’t you dressed?” she said. Anoria was standing in her white, sleeve-less chemise and petticoats, the pink skirt trailing on the ground and slipping off her hips.
“Anastasia, please,” Anoria replied, voice tight. “Go down to the kitchen and eat. It’s lunchtime.”
“But—” she started to protest.
“Anastasia!” Maggie said from right outside the door. She came into view, flushed and exasperated. “There you are, you little imp, I’ve been looking all over for you!”
“Maggie, did I not just tell you not to disturb me?” Anoria turned her head slightly, looking over her shoulder. Her face was bloodless and waxy, green eyes even larger than usual and glittering like jewels. Her shoulders were hunched up as if warding off a blow. Anastasia had never seen Anoria anything less than steady and dignified, and drew back a step.
Maggie bobbed a curtsy, her gaze carefully avoiding Anoria. “Begging your pardon, milady, but the little one is where she ought not to be.” She directed a stern look toward Anastasia that immediately lost a little of its sting. Maggie’s face was made for laughing, not frowning.
“Then take her and go,” Anoria said, voice breaking on the last word.
Anastasia was tall for six years old, but Maggie picked her up regardless, balancing her on her wide hip. Maggie hurried away, but not before Anastasia saw Anoria lose what little composure she had. Shoulders shuddering, she turned around to face the closet, revealing faint red stains on the front of her white petticoats. Anastasia looked over Maggie’s shoulder even as they walked down the stairs and Anoria had left her line of sight, the red stains vivid as rose petals on a lake in her mind, floating curiously.
Months passed, and Anoria’s stomach grew large. She resembled a pale spider with her large middle and long, thin limbs. No one mentioned that her lovely smile was slipping off her waxen face. She said nothing.
Anoria had always left notes for the servants, but Anastasia started finding notes in her room. The first one was on her dresser: I can’t sleep. There was no signature, but it was Anoria’s hand-writing. She recognized the familiar right-slanted words with their delicate loops. Anastasia found the second one under her pillow: I am frightened of what I see in my dreams. The third one was in the back of her drawer: I am full of dread; it curls in my stomach, a sleeping and venomous snake. A fraternal twin of the baby that is sleeping just as restlessly next to it. Anastasia put all three of them on the kitchen table and the next time she passed through the kitchen, they were gone.
Her mother had been put on bed rest by the doctor, and Anastasia went to her room.
“Mama,” she said and crawled up onto the bed to lie next to her.
“Yes, darling?” she said. Anastasia wrapped her arms around her neck and buried her face in Anoria’s hair. Anoria rubbed her back. “What’s wrong?”
“Are you okay?” Anastasia said into her hair. It had become dry and luster-less, crackling against her nose, but it still smelled of lavender. It still smelled like Anoria.
“I’m fine, Ana,” she said. Her fingers were soothingly warm against Anastasia’s back. A familiar warmth, like when she had been sick and Anoria had laid a warm hand on her stomach for hours until she felt better. “I’m fine.”
Anastasia found the fourth note in her toy box: I am a skeleton; gray and petrified.