Jacqueline barely remembered her father.
She knew that both she and Marguerite had been born in Belgium, and she had a few hazy memories of a beautiful home she thought might have been theirs once. She remembered her mother smiling, holding her close and murmuring comments in her ears that were comforting instead of cutting.
Or perhaps all of that was just a dream, a pleasant thought that had crossed her mind once that she had clung to as something better than the truth. That seemed just as likely, if not more so.
Whatever the case, while she may have had a few half-forgotten memories of those days, almost none of them had her father in them. Maybe she had been too young to truly form memories of him. Maybe he simply hadn't spent much time around her. Maybe her mind had done its best to forget him as a way of protecting her. They were all equally possible. Her mother rarely spoke of him, and Jacqueline wasn't foolish enough to bring him up no matter how curious she was.
She thought that he had been tall, with hair an even paler gold than Marguerite's, but they were impressions more than actual memories. Her mother had made many comments about the things that Jacqueline was not... and a daughter who took after her father was one of them. Why wouldn't she imagine him as the opposite of her then, considering how little in common she had with her own sister? Marguerite must have gotten her coloring somewhere.
Still, when it all came down to it, the only thing she truly remembered about Belgium was running away from it.
Jacqueline had been too young to truly understand what was happening at the time, but she still remembered the fragmented details of those last few days. Her mother's scream when she heard the news. Whispers of "treason" and "beheading" when the servants thought no one was listening. Dark cloaks over their heads as they slipped out in the night. Fleeing for France before anyone thought to look for them, heading back to the country her mother had given up in exchange for a husband years earlier.
Her memories of what came next were stronger and more vivid. She remembered those early days back in France, the unsettled feeling of having her entire life unrooted and the worry she felt whenever she heard the hissed arguments her mother had with her own parents after coming to them looking for sanctuary. They had been furious, or at least that's what Jacqueline had thought at the time. Looking back, she thought that it might have been fear that spurred them rather than anger. Fear for what would happen to their daughter without a husband at her side, with two daughters and no land to call her own.
She'd overheard enough conversations that she shouldn't have to know that being alone wasn't something her mother wanted for them.
Auguste de Barbarac had seemingly come out of nowhere. Jacqueline wasn't even certain how his path had crossed with her mother's. He belonged to another world than her mother did, or at least that's how it seemed to her. Whatever the case, he had swept in like the wind, upending their lives all over again.
He had made her mother smile. Jacqueline had almost forgotten that her mother knew how to smile.
And, just like that, Jacqueline had a father again. A father, and a new home, and new expectations, and a brand new sister who was almost a full year older than Marguerite and almost two years older than her. Everything changed with an exchange of vows.
Jacqueline was excited and scared and more than a little nervous. Danielle was nothing like a proper young lady, at least not any that Jacqueline had ever met, but she was the oldest of them and Auguste's own daughter. She had called the manor and its lands home for her entire life. She knew who everyone was and how everything worked, and – while Jacqueline was fairly certain Auguste's occasional comments about how she and Marguerite needed to learn how to get their hands dirty were nothing more than teasing – she couldn't help but think there was a grain of truth in them as well.
She didn't know what to think about that, but at the very least she was curious. Part of her couldn't help but wonder what her life would be like going forward, being considered the daughter of Auguste de Barbarac rather than the late, disgraced Baron de Ghent. It would be different, but different wasn't always bad.
Any expectations she had died with Auguste only a few weeks later.
Danielle blinked at her almost owlishly before reaching out to grab the bread from Jacqueline's hand, wolfling it down in a thoroughly unladylike manner. Not that Jacqueline could blame her, as she was fairly certain Danielle hadn't been allowed anything to eat since the night before. She wasn't even certain what had happened, only that Mother had been in a spiteful mood by the time Jacqueline had made it down to breakfast and Marguerite had seemed almost gleeful.
If there was anything Jacqueline had learned over the last twelve years of her life, it was that nothing good had happened if Marguerite seemed happy about it.
Whatever had occurred, Jacqueline knew that Danielle hadn't been allowed food all day. And she knew from personal experience how unpleasant that could be. Jacqueline still remembered how upset her mother had been back in the summer when her dresses had stopped fitting properly, her body shifting and changing under them. She had insisted that Jacqueline needed to eat less now that she was becoming a woman, and there had been more than one night when she had gone to bed hungry by no choice of her own.
Danielle had slipped her summer apples and small bits of cheese or bread when Mother and Marguerite weren't looking, hiding the cores under her skirts when she cleaned the room in the morning to keep them from being discovered. The least Jacqueline could do was return the favor.
"Thank you," Danielle said as she finished the bread, her face still pale but with a tiny bit more color in it than before.
Jacqueline gave her a small nod, reaching out to brush away a few telltale crumbs from the corners of Danielle's mouth that the older girl hadn't noticed.
Danielle flinched slightly at the touch, but she didn't pull away. She knew as well as Jacqueline which one of them would be punished if Mother found out.
"You should get to work on brushing my hair," Jacqueline said, holding it out towards her. "Mother will be checking in at any moment."
Without a word, Danielle took the brush from her hand and went to work.
After almost six years, Jacqueline still wasn't entirely certain how to feel about her stepsister. She barely remembered a time when Danielle hadn't been a part of her life, and yet sometimes they felt like strangers. Marguerite and Mother treated her as if Danielle was nothing more than a servant, lesser than them due to her blood, as if a baron was truly more than just a small step above a seigneur.
Sometimes Jacqueline looked down on her too. She wasn't proud to admit it, but she did. It was easy to think less of her when Danielle was covered in soot from reading beside the fire, or when her hair was full of straw, or when she stared blankly at the mention of someone from court as if she'd never heard their name before in her life no matter how important they were.
But other times... well, other times Jacqueline couldn't help think about how different things could have been if Danielle's father had lived. They could have been sisters once, truly sisters, not the parody of family that they were instead.
Part of her thought that she would have liked to have lived that life.
She wasn't certain what had changed, although she had her suspicions. She still remembered that short amount of time after Auguste had come into their lives, before he had left just as suddenly. The secret smile that she'd glimpsed on Danielle's face from time to time reminded her of Mother during those days, if only a little. Danielle's was brighter, and it shone more true, but they were similar enough to put thoughts in Jacqueline's head.
They were all women now, she and Marguerite and Danielle. If circumstances had been different, Danielle might have been married by this point in her life, maybe even with children of her own in her arms. She was the oldest of them, after all. Even if fate had other plans, was it that surprising that she might have found a beau to slip away with?
There were plenty of peasants in the area, some with better prospects than others. Perhaps one of them had finally managed to catch Danielle's eye.
Whatever the case, it was not Jacqueline's place to say anything to anyone. Not to Mother, not to Marguerite, and certainly not to Danielle. Perhaps her stepsister could find happiness in another home, one without so many memories of what she had lost when her father fell from his horse that day clinging to it. Or perhaps it was simply a dalliance, one that would change nothing in the end, so long as Danielle did nothing foolish.
Only time would tell.
Jacqueline walked over the window with a sigh, looking out at the lands below. She could hear raised voices elsewhere in the manor, Marguerite's and Mother's arguments blending together as they made yet another plan to try and turn the prince's gaze towards her sister.
Part of her wished that it would work. It wasn't as if she would be welcome at the palace for more than short visits if the prince did marry Marguerite. Mother, yes, but not her. She could take over running the estate, with Danielle at her side as they both worked to rebuild what had been lost over the years. Like the sisters they should have been.
Outside, Louise and Paulette huddled together for a whispered conversation before hurrying off in other directions. Maurice walked by with a basket over his arm, his gaze focused somewhere off in the distance out of sight.
There was no sign of Danielle.
Lately, there was never any sign of Danielle.
Marguerite's voice rose even louder, the words indistinct but the strident tone easy to make out. Then there was the sound of shattering glass, followed by Mother's voice.
"Danielle! Come clean up this mess!"
Jacqueline flinched and turned her gaze back towards the window. There was still no sign of Danielle, nor any of the other servants, but was that truly a surprise? It was the middle of the day. They were supposed to be outside, doing their various chores.
It was a test. Jacqueline knew it as well as she knew anything. If Danielle came running to see what Mother needed, she would be chastised for not being where she should be, and yet if she didn't come she would be punished later for not responding. Either way, she would fail.
There was nothing new about it. Jacqueline had seen and heard Mother do similar things a hundred times over the years, starting when Auguste was barely even in his grave.
Jacqueline wasn't certain when she had realized the unfairness of it. She didn't know when it had begun to bother her.
All she knew is that it did.
She kept staring out the window, letting her mind wander to a future where she and Danielle ran the estate with no Mother or Marguerite there to belittle them. To a past that never got the chance to be. It was just a dream, nothing more.
But she was starting to understand why Danielle found her dreams so appealing. They were a nice way to escape, if only for a few moments.
It had been a long time coming, tiny sparks building and building until they finally turned into a fiery inferno. The day that Marguerite had burned Auguste's last gift to Danielle had been the day the sparks truly took, turning into a true flame rather than the embers they'd been before then. It had grown higher and higher after that point, with every piece of kindling that had been thrown on it.
Laughing with Danielle as she cleaned her bleeding back in the aftermath of a whipping. Watching helplessly as Danielle was shoved into the cellar, the door locking behind her. Hearing the same callous words she'd heard a thousand times over as Mother made it abundantly clear that putting Marguerite on the throne was the only thing she cared about. Watching as her mother ripped the beautiful wings from Danielle's back, just like she'd ripped away both of their hopes and dreams and so many other things over the years.
It had taken ten years for Jacqueline to recognize what was in front of her face. Ten years to truly understand what mattered to her, and to her Mother, and to her sister. To both her sisters.
And then Danielle had been ripped away without warning. She'd been physically torn from the land she had called home longer than any of them had, sold as if she was nothing more than a piece of property. She was Jacqueline's stepsister. She was her sister, more than Marguerite had been since they were small children... if even then. And Mother sold her as if she was nothing.
Jacqueline didn't know if there was anything she could do to fix what had happened. She hoped there was, that God or fate or perhaps even Leonardo da Vinci himself would step in again and give her a chance to help. To make things right. To make things better.
Danielle was her family. Her sister. Perhaps one of the closest things she had to a friend, sad as it was to consider that fact. Jacqueline should have done better. She should have found a way to protect her, somehow and in some way. It may not have worked. But she hadn't even tried. She should have tried.
If fate was willing to give her a chance, to put her in the right place at the right time to help Danielle in the way that she should have a hundred times over in the past, then she would gladly do it. For Danielle's sake.
And, if she was honest, for her own.
Even the meekest mouse would bite if cornered. And no matter what her mother seemed to think, Marguerite wasn't the only daughter she had raised. Jacqueline had learned from the best just when to hide and when to fight back.
She only hoped she'd have the chance to put those teachings to use.