Authors: Sophie Masson
Bianca Dalmatin wants for nothing. As the heir to a department store empire and stepdaughter of the beautiful Lady Belladonna, the only thing Bianca longs for is a friend. It seems that her wish is granted at the Duke's Presentation Ball when she meets the handsome, mysterious Lucian Montresor.
But after the
newspaper names Bianca as Lepmest's new Fairest Lady, the true nature of her stepmother is revealed. Belladonna tells Bianca the shocking news that Bianca's father is dying â and, when Bianca races to be by his side, Belladonna sends her faithful servant to kill her.
Who is friend and who is enemy? Bianca must find allies if she is to survive â and if she is to expose Belladonna for who she really is.
Dark secrets. Darker magic. Sophie Masson's reimagined Snow White will leave you breathless.
A silk dress the pearly colour of autumn mist, inserted with lace delicate as wisps of cloud stitched onto raindrop-sheer gauze. Satin shoes of the same shade to match and then, over the dress, a fine velvet cloak of the silvery shade and sheen of moonlight, with a thin ribbon of the same colour threaded through my jet-black hair. Around my neck, a pearl pendant on a fine silver chain; at my ears two pearl drops; on my finger the silver knot-ring my father Sir Anton Dalmatin and my stepmother Belladonna gave me for my seventeenth birthday, two days earlier. And by my side, Belladonna herself, watching with a smile as I paraded in front of the mirror, hardly able to recognise myself in the clothes she had chosen for me to wear at the Duke's Presentation Ball, which was to be held the following night.
âSo, Bianca, what do you think?' she said, putting her golden head on one side. She makes me think of a bird when she does that â a swan, perhaps, with her gliding
walk, long neck and white dress light as feathers that drapes around her graceful form. She has not long turned thirty but looks a good deal younger.
âI love it,' I answered. It was true. If I'd had dreams of a dress red as a rose, or blue as a summer sky, those dreams had vanished when the grey silk fell softly around me like a blessing.
âI'm glad,' my stepmother said. A smile sparkled in her cornflower-blue eyes. âIt's such a good colour for you, my darling. Subtle.'
I nodded. Belladonna was right, as usual. My instinct had been for bright colours, but she'd gently made me understand that it wasn't suitable. I must not draw too much attention to myself. The wrong sort of attention, that is.
âAll eyes will be on you, of course, at your first big social event. You are the only child of the King of Elegance, after all.'
This was what the
, the most popular picture paper in the land, had dubbed my father. Sir Anton Dalmatin was the owner of a string of fashionable department stores called Ladies' Fair. His first store had been right here in Lepmest, the capital of the province of Noricia, but now there were branches all over the empire.
âAnd elegant is what a young lady should be at all times,' Belladonna had gone on. âDiscreet, elegant, refined.'
She was right. Of course she was right. But I knew what she wasn't saying: that elegance was even more important to me than to most other young ladies for with my black hair, red lips and hazel eyes, I do not have the looks of a Norician aristocrat. My father is tall, blond, grey-eyed; my
mother had also been fair, with green eyes. I had the looks of a distant ancestor, or so my father had told me. Her name was Tamara, and she'd lived two hundred years ago. Not much was known about her, but there was a family legend that she was a gypsy girl, who had spellbound my Dalmatin ancestor into marriage with her magic.
Whatever the truth, I had her looks, allied to the pale skin that was my inheritance from my mother, and the tallness that came from my father. Together, those things were less than desirable because they were unusual. And unusual was not something a Dalmatin heiress should be. I had to show I had the breeding, the poise, the effortless elegance of a girl from one of Noricia's finest families.
I'd been brought up at home by a succession of nannies, governesses and tutors, but before Belladonna came, four years ago, I'd paid very little attention to their attempts to teach me how to be a young lady. My father was away a lot on business and did not seem to notice. But Belladonna did, and she took me under her wing straight after her marriage to my father.
I'd learnt a great deal, since then. I knew how I should walk. How I should dress. How I should speak. It did not come naturally, but I loved and admired Belladonna and wanted to do my best for her. People said that a stepmother was nothing like a real mother. Perhaps that is true, but what people didn't consider was that if you hardly remember your mother, then you will have nothing to compare a stepmother to.
My mother died when I was three, and my father grieved for her for ten long years before he met Belladonna. He had not spent much time at home during that
period. I think he could not bear to stay long in the house where he and my mother had been happy. It did not occur to him that I might be lonely. And for most of the time I wasn't.
Until Belladonna came, I read a lot and played with my good friends Rafiel and Margy Goran, the son and daughter of the gardener and his wife, the under-cook. Margy was my age, Rafiel three years older. He was a bold, daring, laughing sort of boy and unlike many older brothers, did not treat his younger sister like an annoyance. Or me, his sister's friend. Instead, he devised adventures for us: climbing trees to make miniature houses in the branches, or turning the back garden into an imaginary mythical land, complete with dragons we had to vanquish. Other times, we might play card games â Margy's favourite â or hide-and-seek, a game at which I was particularly good.
All that passed the time. I missed my father sometimes but because he was not around much, I didn't know him well and so I didn't think of it often. Children generally don't think about things they can't change. It was only when Belladonna married my father and came to live with us that I realised I had missed having parents who noticed me.
My father and stepmother had met in Faustina, the imperial capital. Each year, beauties from across the Empire competed for the honour of being the face of Ladies' Fair and for the prizes that came with it: money, fame, endless parties, fine clothes, jewels and at the end, very often, the hand of a smitten suitor. Four years ago, Belladonna had been chosen as Fairest Lady in the annual competition that was run by the Ladies' Fair stores and
my father, as usual, was to crown the winner. Until Belladonna, my father had never shown the slightest interest in any of the Fairest Ladies. But with her, he fell in love at first sight.
I could tell right away that Belladonna was different to the other ladies. Any other woman might have jumped at the chance to marry one of the Empire's richest men and pretended instant love, too, but not Belladonna. It took my father weeks to persuade her to consider him for a husband. At first it made me worry that she wasn't truly in love but, after she married my father, Belladonna confided in me that although she had loved my father instantly, she was aware that, coming from a poorer background, people may suspect her of being a gold-digger.
That is one of the things I like about Belladonna: she is her own person. She did not have the usual cocooned life of a society woman before she met my father; she had known tragedy young when first her parents and then her grandmother died. She'd had no money so she'd left her home, the island city-state of Aurisola, to work for a living as a governess. It was only when, while on a rare holiday in Faustina, she'd been spotted by a talent scout in the street, her fate had taken a turn for the better. I admire her greatly for the rare spirit and determination she'd shown through it all. I put a high price on her good opinion. And sometimes the price could be high: she had long ago put an end to my âunsuitable' friendships with Rafiel and Margy Goran, the servants' children, and corrected my foolish impulses with her watchfulness.
âI was thinking of also wearing my turquoise bracelet,' I said, now a little hesitantly. My father had brought the
bracelet back for me from one of his trips, many years ago, and I'd treasured it as a child. âI thought Father might be pleased to know I wore it.' For that was the only cloud on my horizon that day: Father would be unable to be there to see me being presented to the Duke because he was on urgent business far away in Aurisola.
A slight frown briefly creased Belladonna's forehead. âIt is a pretty thing for a little girl,' she said, âbut you are all grown up now. I think that is what your father would like to hear reported.'
And by that I understood that I had been about to make a faux pas. When would I ever learn what came to her so naturally?
That evening, Belladonna hosted a lavish pre-ball event. It was to be a preview of the spring fashions which would shortly make their appearance in Ladies' Fair. Two hundred and fifty of our best and most important customers had been invited. As I had not yet been officially presented, I would be taking a back seat, which suited me just fine, as the thought of having to be the gracious hostess to such a high-society gathering made my mouth go dry.
But I would not have missed it for the world, either. From childhood, I'd been enthralled by fashion shows. My father was the first in the world to realise that such things needed to be more than just a parade of dresses; they also needed a touch of magic â a story, a theme that would make each show special. So we'd had shows inspired by famous poems, legendary beauties, rare flowers or exotic places. There were four shows a year, one for each season, and all were hosted in our central
Lepmest store, with smaller ones held in other branches around the world.
This winter's show, for instance, had been inspired by the remote, mysterious underground world of the Kingdom of Night. My father had overseen the creation of a spectacular backdrop that recreated the salt-crystal pillars of that strange realm. But although the winter show had been the talk of the city for weeks, all Ladies' Fair shows were famous. Each one was written up in newspapers, tourist guides and travel books, and talked of over and over through word of mouth. People flocked to the shows from far and wide â and not only from Noricia, but from countries all around the world. To the shows came great ladies, princesses and queens, merchants' wives and daughters, famous actresses and singers, society ladies of all kinds and even learned professors and celebrated writers.
Before Belladonna had taken over the planning, the shows had been put together by store staff and the theme had been based on Father's ideas. Since Belladonna had come into our lives, the design of the shows had become hers, for her talents did not just lie in her beautiful face and manners: she understood the heart of fashion. She understood what made a dress more than just a piece of fabric, but a kind of magic spell in which you were transformed from ordinary girl to dream princess. It was just like when she'd chosen my dress for the Duke's ball: she had chosen the gown that was truly me. It was as if she knew me better than I knew myself. In the same way, she also understood our customers. She knew exactly how to handle people, from the haughtiest princess to the most nervous merchant's daughter, from the most
flamboyant actress to the most formidable professor. Everyone who spoke to her was convinced that she thought they were the most important, delightful, charming customer we had ever had and never did Belladonna betray any impatience, no matter how tiresome or difficult or boring the customers were.
Belladonna had also made two bold changes which had transformed an already popular event into an even more feverishly awaited one. The first of Belladonna's innovations had been to inaugurate a competition for two lucky readers of the
to win an invitation to the exclusive show. Thousands upon thousands of hopefuls entered the competition every year, dreaming of rubbing shoulders with the rich and famous at the world's most celebrated fashion event.
The second of Belladonna's innovations made the show even bigger. In the past, the theme of each show had been advertised weeks ahead, in the
. Now, the theme was kept a secret until the very night of the show, with intriguing hints being dropped in the
so that excitement rose not only among the invited guests, but also among the less-exalted customers and ordinary women who also read the
The theme was such a secret that not even I knew what it was. Dress rehearsals were held in secret locations; sets and decorations were kept under wraps; and on the afternoon of the show, the store was closed, with all the blinds pulled down, so no-one could peek in and see any of the preparations. Belladonna herself spent most of the afternoon there, supervising last-minute details, and only returned home to dress for the show.
Her gown was new, of course. It was a simple, beautifully cut dark-blue flowing-silk dress with short sleeves made of fine gauze, a dress that perfectly showed off the blue of her eyes and the slenderness of her figure. She wore it with the sapphire earrings Father had given her at Christmas. She looked supremely elegant and I told her so.
âSo do you, my sweet,' she said, giving me a light, scented peck on the cheek as we were ushered into the carriage by Drago, the burly, taciturn manservant who'd come with her when she moved to Lepmest. He travelled with Belladonna everywhere she went, as if he were afraid she might be kidnapped.
As we rode in the carriage, I thought about Belladonna's compliment to me. I liked it though I was not sure of the truth of it â my yellow muslin dress, though pretty enough, looked like a little girl's frock beside what Belladonna was wearing. But it did not worry me too much. I was not the one on show and I did not want to be. Tomorrow night's Presentation Ball would be different, and that was more than enough to be nervous about.
We arrived at the store a little after six, only a short while before the guests were due to arrive. Belladonna immediately vanished backstage to speak to the models and the staff but I wandered around the enormous airy space of the store's ground floor, which had been transformed into a stage set for the show. All the usual displays had been cleared away, including the mannequins. A large stage complete with catwalk and black velvet curtains embroidered with the feathered-hat crest of Ladies' Fair had been erected at one end. Hundreds of white velvet-covered chairs had been brought in to face the stage, but
because the space was so big, and because the walls were inset with mirrors, it did not feel at all crowded.
The setting and decorations were very simple this year, with everything either black or white. There were black-and-white paper chains cut into the shapes of figures holding hands strung around the room; black-and-white rugs on the polished wooden floors; and several large tall glass vases, half of them black, half of them white, each containing one bunch of white tulips and one bunch of black tulips. The long tables at the far end of the room, where pre-show drinks and snacks would be served and where a small army of waiters was already bustling, were covered with snowy-white cloths on which reposed piles of black plates and fleets of fine white glasses. The small group of musicians â two violinists, a violist and a flautist â were dressed in eighteenth-century black-and-white costume, which included powdered white wigs tied back with black satin ribbons. It was simple yet stunning.
Very soon the guests began to arrive. I was not expected to greet them; that was all up to Belladonna, who stood by the front door and welcomed each person as they came in. I stayed in the background at the programs stand â handing them out was my job â watching the guests arrive, feeling my heart swell with pride and admiration for my stepmother. If my father was the King of Elegance, Belladonna was Queen. But she was a queen who wore her crown lightly. I could not help marvelling at the way she went about the task of making each and every guest feel special and valued.
That included the two nervous young women who were the winners of the
's competition, who arrived
with the paper's fashion editor, Miss Sommer Malling, who had become one of Belladonna's close friends. The two winners were a little overdressed in gorgeously beaded and sequinned gowns that were clearly last year's styles but Miss Sommer Malling was, as usual, attired in her trademark plain black evening dress with a black pearl necklace to match. She had never been seen in anything else at such events and it had become part of her legend. For nearly three decades, Miss Malling had been one of the great names at the
, making or breaking the reputations of fashion designers, stores and models, and though she had a somewhat fearsome reputation and was at least twenty years older than Belladonna, she had been quickly won over by my stepmother's charms, just like everyone else.
In fact, after Belladonna had been crowned Fairest Lady and my father had declared that there would be no more annual competitions â there couldn't possibly exist a fairer lady in the world â Miss Sommer Malling had written up her approval in the
. Every year, after each show, the magazine published a written tribute to Belladonna as Fairest Lady alongside a glamorous portrait of her, especially taken to mark the occasion. This year it had been arranged that the portrait would be taken tomorrow, just before the Presentation Ball â Belladonna would be too preoccupied tonight â and published the following day.
The rush began on the programs, now, as the crowd thickened. Some of the guests, like Sommer Malling, knew who I was and spoke to me in a friendly way. I did notice, too, that others who didn't know me stared at me a little. I thought that perhaps they were wondering where they'd seen me before, but I had no time to feel self-conscious,
for I was too busy working. In fact, many of the staff were on duty, ushering people to their seats, taking coats and serving glasses of champagne. I knew many of them by sight and a few by name. Most had been working all day and would work all the long night, without respite. But tomorrow, which was Sunday, the store would be closed and at lunchtime the staff would have their own celebration in the big dining room on the top floor â that was a longstanding tradition after a show.
Soon came the high silvery ringing of the bell that announced the show was about to begin. Those people who were still hovering around the food tables hurried to their seats and the very special guests in the front row â three members of the Faustine imperial family; two Ruvenyan princesses; the wife of the Governor of Ashberg, the Duchess of Almain; several top aristocrats from all over the Faustine Empire; and Duke Ottakar's sister, Lady Helena â sat back in their chairs, smoothing their fine dresses in anticipation. The staff fell back into waiting positions at the far end of the room and I slipped into my allotted seat on the edge of a middle row, just behind the two competition winners, who were sitting straight up like guardsmen on sentry duty.
There was a hush as Belladonna glided up the steps to the stage. Though she was slender and almost slight, she did not need to raise her voice when she spoke. She easily dominated the room with her glamorous presence.
âYour Royal Highnesses,' she began, with a graceful nod to the Ruvenyan princesses. âYour grace,' she nodded to the Duchess of Almain. âLady Helena, ladies and friends. Welcome and thank you for coming. As my husband
Sir Anton Dalmatin is unable to be here tonight, the pleasurable duty of master of ceremonies has fallen on me alone, and so without further ado, I declare this show open.' She pointed towards the lights, which were dimmed on cue, and the musicians began playing a soft, haunting tune that made the palms of my hands prickle with delight and anticipation.
The curtain slowly rose to reveal a scene bathed in soft silvery light. At the back of the stage was a translucent screen on which played patterns of light. In the middle of the stage, side-on, stood a tall gilt mirror which seemed, by an effect of stage trickery, to be beaming out a path of light from each side. A collective gasp came up from the audience as suddenly, from behind the screen â and following the path of light from either side of the mirror â two female figures appeared. One was dressed in white. One in black. If it weren't for their clothing, they would be identical â both were tall, dark-haired, dark-skinned and dark-eyed. They walked towards the mirror in the middle of the stage and as they did so, we could see the detail of their gowns, beautiful full-skirted satin dresses with beading around the bodice.
The models reached the mirror, one on either side of it. And then came a spine-tingling moment: each model reached out a hand to the mirror and as their hands touched the glass, there was a flash of very bright light. When it dimmed, we saw that the two models had become one: a striking, tall, dark-haired, dark-skinned girl wearing a beautiful full-skirted satin evening dress in both black and white.
The effect was so magical, so startling, that for a moment there was complete silence in the room. Then
the applause started, and it quickly became deafening as the single model paraded up and down the catwalk. When she reached the back of the stage, she stood still and was joined by what must have been the first two models: one wearing black, the other wearing white. The lights were dimmed again and I saw that the mirror had been replaced by a paneless window which stood side-on. Two figures appeared, one on each side of the window. Both were blonde, blue-eyed and petite, but one was wearing a light, pretty pink day dress, while the other was wearing a blue one. Each wore a big lacy hat on her head. As they reached the window, they each reached up to grab hold of the frame and swing herself through to the opposite side. There was another flash of light and when we stopped being dazzled, we saw that the same girls were standing on either side of the window, but that their clothes had changed from pink and blue to red and green.
There was another mighty round of applause.
âHow can they possibly do that?' I heard one of ladies in front of me say to the other.
I shared her amazement. Belladonna and her people had really surpassed themselves this time. There was even more than a hint of the usual magic, here. There was something eerie about it, too, something uncanny. It was beautiful, but it was also strange.
The show went on in this vein for a little while, each scene a variation on the last, and each wildly applauded. I could see Sommer Malling scribbling furiously in her notebook some rows away, and the photographer who was with her was taking photo after photo. There would surely be the best write-up ever on this show!
Sommer Malling's scribblings reminded me that I had brought my own notebook â not for writing but for sketching, for drawing people is one of my favourite things, and I knew there would be so much material for sketches here. Belladonna didn't specifically approve or disapprove of my hobby, but I hadn't told her I was bringing my sketchbook. Would this be another faux pas? Unnoticed, I pulled out my notebook and did a few quick impressions of the people around me: the rapt expressions, the open mouths, the craning heads with their elaborate hairdos, the flurry of muslin and satin and velvet and lace and organza. I looked for Belladonna in the crowd. She usually sat in the second row at these events, but I could not see her for there were too many other heads in the way. I hoped she was feeling pleased with the success of her show. She certainly had a right to be!