The price of vanity
Cherry looked down on her mother's deathbed. She had lasted long but in the end, her ailment had won. It filled Cherry with sadness. Sure she had lost her mother, but the way how filled her with dread. Her mother had once been beautiful. She did know it too. Everyone murmured how vain she had been.
For good or bad Cherry took after her mother in both ways. Not only did she match her mother. She beat her too, as she was more beautiful but also vainer. Seeing her mother die like that, skin dried out and ugly, she vowed to never end up like her. But she knew, sickness might be avoided, but everyone aged. Well, as far as she knew. After her mother's funeral, she would spend some time and money to find out. After all, with her mother gone and her father died in battle a few years back she was a duchess now. And a rich one at that.
“What about salt-spider venom?”
The gathered men cringed and avoided her eyes. They were all scholars of some kind. Many of them mages. Finally one was brave enough to answer.
“Those only paralyze muscles in the face. They do not give back youth. It merely appears like that.”
Cherry screamed in rage. Her temper got the best of her again. She knew some servants joked behind her back that she should have been named ‘rose’. Because behind all her beauty was sharp thorns. Brooding she calmed herself and stared at the men. Soon enough another one found the courage to speak. A young one. An apprentice of a mage she recalled.
“What about Heirloom Gems?”
That earned him a slap from his teacher. Angry shouts came from the others. Cherry quickly cut in.
“What about those gems? What makes them so special?”
Quickly the teacher replied.
“They have been outlawed, Duchess. In this kingdom and their neighboring ones. They were meant to pass down skills from one generation to the next. But the stronger they became the stronger the side effects.”
Cherry looked over to the apprentice.
”How would knowledge help me to stay young?”
Glancing to the other men he explained.
“It is about those side effects duchess. You see powerful gems do imprint more than knowledge. If many of their wearers do share the same trait that trait might imprint too. That could be behaviors or body characteristics.”
“Is that so? Well does one exist that might fit the bill for me?”
The men began to murmur among them. Ideas were thrown in and tossed out again.
“The warrior princess's gem?”
“Good luck acquiring that one.”
“Wasn’t there some gem in east Inoba that made beautiful young maiden?”
“Yeah along with a death wish for Dragonfire..”
On and on they went. In the end, each viable gem was crossed off the list or was lost. Getting a headache she sends anyone out. They all shuffled out, but when she looked the apprentice was still there.
“What?” she harshly demanded.
“There might be yet a way to acquire a gem perfect for you.”
He looked expecting to her. Dutiful but annoyed she motioned for him to continue.
“I found the way to make heirloom gems in a book from my master's library. I could create one and then we just have to teach it.”
Cherry was intrigued, but she found a flaw.
“Didn’t they say it takes generations to imprint one? I’d be dead ten times over.”
The apprentice, however, didn’t let go.
“I think I can expedite it. A gem learns depending on how much magic the wearer has. It is my belief that by choosing a person with a lot of magic it might learn faster. I even think simply placing enchantments on someone would make it stronger. Though these have to be carefully chosen as they too might be learned by the gem. But if it would be one for example like good health… “
This is at least an option she thought.
She dismissed the apprentice for now. She was deep in thought. If that was a viable option she needed viable candidates to teach the gem.
It was late and a week later that Cherry was found by the head nursemaid in the nursery. The castle had a room just for newborns and their own healers. An idea by Cherry’s grandfather to reduce the high child mortality rate. It worked and keeping it running made a lot of goodwill with the peasants. She often found herself here when she needed to think. Being surrounded by babies somehow always soothed her. Though sometimes she had to admit to herself that she was jealous of their youth.
“Can’t sleep again?” the head nurse inquired.
Cherry only nodded.
“I find it relaxing too. Watching them sleep. They are so full of potential. They are still unwritten pages to be filled. It fills me hope.”
Cherry nodded. She was only half listening. But something the nursemaid said provided fuel to her thought. She was silent for a few minutes as her mind raced. Finally, she said.
“I think my grandfather didn’t go far enough. I am thinking of hiring a mage to do some enchanting on the babies. Some for health and against sickness. Might be a bit expensive, but I am a bit more worried that the parents would object. What do you think how they would react?”
Smiling, the nurse took Cherry’s hand and led her over to a crib.
“That’s Maya. My own daughter. One day, when you have your own child, you will know that parents would do a lot for them. All because they care. I’d be happy to keep my daughter safe by allowing those enchantments. And I know other parents would be too. I think it’s a good and thoughtful idea. Especially if it would be your first big act as the duchess.”
So far so good.
“Yes, I thought so too. I spoke recently with one of those apprentices and he told me it would be possible to create a gem that would monitor those enchantments. Just to make sure that they really work. Though it would have to be fused to one of the babies. Temporarily of course.”
The head nurse smiled again.
“A wise precaution. I’d be honored if my child would wear it.”
Cherry excused herself politely and headed to her chambers. It was a stroke of genius in her mind. Babies. What do they know? Nothing. So an heirloom gem would have nothing to learn but their youthfulness of their bodies. And her slight deception she came up with would keep her plans secret. Tomorrow she would have to speak to the apprentice again. Smiling she headed on.
20 years. 20 long years. Cherry looked into the mirror. To her, every year could be seen on her face and body. She hated it. For being 38 years old she looked fine to everyone but her own critical eye. Her mood wasn’t the best at good times and servants did avoid her if possible when she was at her worst. Like right now. For that matter alone it was strange that someone knocked at her door.
“What?!” she shouted agitated.
A young girl slipped into her chambers.
“You left orders that we should inform you when something is amiss in the nursery.”
Huffing she stood up.
Though her faults everyone knew she had a thing for the nursery. She knew the servants were talking behind her. Speculating why. Was it because she never married? Never gotten an heir? She didn’t mind as long no one guessed the real purpose. She followed the girl down the hallways and stairs. Servants and underlings scattering left and right. Cherry still hoped the heirloom gem might work out. The many other things failed miserably. Entering the nursery she looked around. Nothing looked amiss. The girl moved over to a crib.
“I am worried about this baby girl Duchess. Uhm, how old does she look to you.”
Curiously she walked over.
“Looks like a healthy 6-month-old to me.”
The nursemaid nodded. “Yes. But she is actually 13 months old. Something is holding back her development. We never had anything like that before. Uhm, my mother, the previous head nurse told me about the gem. You know the one to monitor the enchantments. As luck would have it his baby is wearing it. I was wondering if you could check the gem if it caught something?”
Cherry could hardly wait for the girl to finish. It worked. She had all but lost hope. She took a few more moments to calm her nerves. She gently undressed the baby and removed the gem.
“I will look into it.” she promised.
Cherry was elated. 20 years. 25 hosts for the gem to learn. She barely could contain her good mood. With eager steps, she returned to her chambers. She practically tore the dress from herself. The gem felt warm on her chest. She wasn’t sure if it was the magic or still the heat of the baby. She didn’t care enough to find out. With a push, the gem fused with her. Now she had to be patient a few more days. At least she hoped it would be only a few days before the first signs showed.
Her subjects knew something was up. Cherry was in a good mood. That was rare enough. But her good mood lasted now for days. Today she noticed that the claw feet around her eyes vanished. That had quickly pushed the strange event out of her mind that happened shortly before. Rummaging in one of her jewelry boxes she was suddenly fascinated by the sounds of her jewelry clang at each other. Rattling had been even more fun.
Pulling her mind from the strange event she concentrated on the coming meeting. She knew she sometimes had a horrible personality, but she never let it interfere when it came to governing her duchy. Well almost never. Today was about some mining rights. Boring but necessary. Arriving with her consultants she greeted the traders. The talks and with it the back and forth started.
Two hours into the talks, she suddenly felt something wrong. She felt panic coming up but quickly fought it down. She postponed the meeting and dismissed her consultants. Citing some reason, flimsy as it was, helped to get them out. Only when she was sure that the room was empty she stood up. Making absolutely sure that no one was around she touched her chair. They were warm and soggy. Panic came up again as some tears. What was she to do? She had peed herself and she hadn’t noticed till it was way too late. Worse yet was that she couldn’t stop her bladder to empty itself till it was empty. Embarrassment colored her cheeks red.
Still, she gathered her wits. The chair landed a moment later in the flames of the room's fireplace. Looking at her backside she noticed the dark spot on her long skirt. 2 hairpins folded the excess cloth over it. She hoped this was enough so no one would notice. Arriving in the safety of her room the dress and underwear landed in a fireplace too.
Next time it was worse. It was shortly before her postponed meeting. She had yet again admired her reflections in the mirror. Suddenly there was wetness. Worse yet her bowels emptied too. She tried to stop but it just wouldn’t. She felt so helpless that she started to cry.
Only when all tears were shed she could think clearly again. Quickly she undressed. Looking around she nearly panicked again. Her fireplace was cold and even if it would be lit it wasn’t a good option. One such event might be explainable by her often aggravated moods. Two not so much. Stripping naked she did what she could for now. Cherry bundled everything up and hid it. Quickly dressing a new she headed to the meeting and prayed that not any more accidents might happen.
The meeting lasted till the late evening. Luckily without further accidents. Finally, in her room, she thought about how to get rid of the evidence. Looking at the hiding place she found it already empty. Again she had to fight back tears. Her hands moved to the gem on her chest. It was the only thing that could explain it. How she had been a fool. She saw it now. Yes, babies didn’t learn anything yet, but that didn’t mean they were without behavior. After all the years of waiting. The money she spent. It was suddenly clear to her that the price for her returning youth was much steeper than she had thought. Still, she hesitated to remove it. Her mind was whirling. Maybe she could find ways to hide it. First, she needed to make sure that further accidents would be contained. Quietly she exited her room and headed to the nursery. She was well aware of the irony of sneaking through her own castle. Good thing it was late at night and not many were around anymore. Finally, she made it. She slipped into the utility closet rifling through the stacks of cloth for diapers. Suddenly a voice startled her.
“I wouldn’t take those.”
With a guilty face, she looked who was speaking. It was the maid who alerted her of the gems behavior. She wanted to slap herself for her own foolishness. Of course, there was always a nursemaid around. The babies were never to be left alone. Before Cherry could speak up the maid sauntered over. Pulling a basket from the shelf she showed her Duchess the content.
“We use these as inner linings as they are softer and those in your hands we use as outer lining.”
A nod was all Cherry could manage. For every other purpose, she was frozen. Her mind was in panic unable to come up with an explanation. Even for her, it would be strange to get the urge to reapply a diaper for one of the babies in the middle of the night. She was once again cut short by the maids speaking.
“I heard today the most curious story. The chambermaid for your room found one of your dresses hidden away and soiled. Of course, she had to spread the news and wild rumors. Luckily I caught her early. It was obvious to me that someone played a prank on you and I told her as much. I further advised to keeping it silent as if you might find out about the prank. Certainly, no one wanted to invite your wrath after all. Right? Besides, rumor spreading such a disgusting thing. Hardly ever some truth to it.”
She stopped speaking and looked down where Cherry still was holding the diaper cloth. In a gentle voice, she asked.
Cherry broke out in tears, suddenly unable to hold it back. Bawling like a small child she told the maid everything. It felt strangely good to let it all out. Telling her story while she was being held by the maid who made quite relaxing cooing sounds.
When it was all out Cherry stood embarrassed like a small child caught stealing cookies. Finally, the maid spoke.
“I should be quite angry with you. Using children, babies, for your own gains. But listen to me. My name if you didn’t know is Maya. I am the daughter of the head nursemaid in charge when you started your business with the gem. But more so I was the first one to wear the gem. I grew up healthy and was never sick in my childhood. And so did all the other children who spend time in this very nursery. For that, you have my thanks and my help. Now. Let's head back. I will come soon as my shift is over in a bit. Oh, and let me take these. It’s less conspicuous if I carry around the diaper cloth."
Cherry hadn’t to be told twice. She headed out fast. While walking back she idly thought if she could really trust Maya.
Impatiently she waited in her room, till a knock startled her. Shortly thereafter Maya slipped into her room. What followed was an embarrassing hour for both women. It turned out it was much harder to diaper a grown woman than a baby. In the end, Maya took charge and it was done. Not that Cherry could tell. Halfway through the stress of the day caught up and she did fall asleep.
Cherry was woken by rays of sunshine. A bad sign as they only found their way into the room at early noon. Quickly noted that yesterday wasn’t a bad dream. Her bottom wrapped in tight cloth was a good sign. The filling of them also told her that her bowels had emptied again. Strangely the diaper was the only thing she was wearing. Maya must have undressed her further. Cherry was thinking about how to inconspicuous call for Maya when a knock was heard.
“My lady. This is Maya. I am here for the report about the nursery you wanted?”
Relieved Cherry ordered her in. Soon the deed was done once more. These 'reports' quickly occurred daily. Then even twice daily. If anyone noticed them especially them, they at least didn’t tell Cherry to her face. But other concerns grew in her. About 2 weeks later she confided to Maya.
“I am worried a bit. It gets harder.”
Dutifully Maya asked.
”What gets harder?”
Cherry looked upset. But her tantrums had gotten a lot less. Quietly she spoke on.
“Everything. I sometimes have problems walking. With my hands I get clumsy. And sometimes I can’t speak. Like I … I still think clearly. But my mouth doesn’t find the words. And when they do..”
“Yeah, I noticed the slight lisp.”
“I worry Maya. I don’t think I can hide it much longer.”
Maya looked away for a moment but then looked Cherry in the eyes.
“They already know. Not all. But servants love their rumors. They noticed things and their guessing comes closer and closer.”
“I feared as much. Maya, I have come so far. Look at me. I look seven years younger already. But I fear how much influence the gem will hold till my body has its youth back. I think I need a regent. Someone I can trust. Someone who cares when no one else does.”
“Should I get one of your consultants?”
“No. It’s you who I trust. Please. I don’t know anyone better.”
Maya did raise some concerns. Like that, she wasn’t trained for it. But Cherry assured her that teachers were already hired. It took some time but in the end, Maya signed some documents, leaving her as regent as long as Cherry was wearing the gem.
Cherry was laying on her bed. Looking up to the big mirror on the ceiling. A present from Maya on her last birthday. 39 years old but looking up she saw a beautiful girl of maybe sixteen or seventeen. That the girl there was nearly naked didn’t bother her as much. By now she had gotten used to it. Cherry smiled a silly grin. She had finally done it. She had her youth back. Over the past month, she had sacrificed so much. She couldn’t walk anymore. Crawling was all she managed. Her hands all but useless. She had to be fed as she couldn’t will her body to hold cutlery anymore. Her mouth all but useless anyway. Now and then she got a word out but it was hard.
But that was all over now. Pawing at her chest she tried to get a hold on the gem, but her hands always slipped. She tried again and again. Upset she started to cry. While her mind was still clear her emotions were rawer and often got the better of her. She looked up as she heard cooing noises. Maya was here and was patting her head.
“What’s wrong little one?”
Cherry pawed at the gem again.
“Oh, Sweety. Wait a moment I have something for you.”
Maya stood up and took something from a nearby shelf. She returned with a few scarfs. She quickly balled one up and pressed it into the palm of Cherry’s hand. Then wrapped another one around her hand and tied it off. The hand was effectively made useless. Maya repeated it on the other hand even with Cherry struggling.
“Now Sweety you won’t do something naughty with your hands. Like removing the gem. Oh, don’t look so hurt. I simply follow the rules you set in the documents. Not my fault that you forgot to write into it the documents when the gem is to be removed. But it clearly states that I am responsible for you and that I have to prevent anything from changing that. In that case you. Yes, I am interpreting that quite freely. You see I do thank you for the changes in the nursery. But in pursuit of your vain goal, you recklessly endanger every child in there. I think it’s time you spend some time there to really learn to value it.”
Maya left over the loud crying of her charge. It felt good to not to pretend anymore. To take down this stuck up bitch was really worth the patience.
Cherry had a hard time keeping track of time. Often she didn’t even care about doing so. Like right now, as she sucked on a nipple. Her mouth pressed against a warm breast. Right now she didn’t even care that it belonged to the cursed Maya. She just enjoyed it. After all, she couldn’t do much else. The gem had finished its work. Cherry guessed it was 2 years ago that her body truly became that of a baby. Though it might be 3 years too. Hard to tell. Around her there were voices.
“Is that her?”
Voices she hadn’t heard before.
“We are just saying that it might the time to remove the gem.”
Maya's voice cut in.
"Absolutely not. I know her better than you do. This here is what she wanted. Believe me. Her instructions were that the gem was only to removed when I couldn’t perform my duties anymore.”
The voices droned on. Cherry didn’t care. She couldn’t tell them that Maya was lying anyway.
Maya was cursing her body. 51 years old. For that, she was holding herself good. Lately, she often visited the nursery. She hadn’t been here in so long. She guessed since her body refused to produce any more milk. Natural or with magic. She was simply too old. Lately, her conscience was bothering her. She looked down on Cherry sleeping peacefully in her crib. Maybe three decades were punishment enough. Gently she took hold of the gem and removed it. Walking to her office she was in thoughts. Maybe I can raise her to be a better person than her mother had. It’s certainly worth a try.
Maya sat down to rest. She was exhausted. Keeping up with the duchy was one thing. Keeping up with a six-year-old on her birthday. A whole different matter. The little Cherry never showed any signs that she remember anything from before. But when she did run around and be hyped about all and everything it certainly was taxing on Maya.
"As if she wanna kill me by stress," jokingly she mused to herself.
Looking around she noticed she couldn’t see her anymore. Probably doing some exploring with the Harding twins again. Her self-proclaimed bodyguards. Maya wasn't worried too much. For all her energy Cherry was still a good kid. Obeying every rule and generally doing what was told to her. Now if Maya could actually keep track of the whirlwind.
"Was I ever so full of energy too?"
Maya was smiling proudly. She did lean heavily on her cane, but seeing her charge in the nursery gave her a bit of energy.
“You know. One day you will have your own.”
Cherry looked over to her protector.
“I know I know. It is my duty to make an heir. But that is still so far away.”
Maya chuckled. “Maybe. Sometimes time goes faster than you think.”
For example the last twelve years. Maya looked over to Cherry. Only 6 more years and she will be 18. The time she could finally retire as regent.
I am sure this time she will do better.
“How are you?” Cherry asked.
Maya was resting in her bed. She felt quite old. With nearly 70 years it was a wonder that she was still alive.
“I am fine my dear. Now that I am retired. Finally some peace and quiet.”
Her birthday had been yesterday. Maya was pretty proud. Cherry did grow up to a pretty but responsible young woman. The only ‘childish’ thing that remained was the Harding twins that still followed her around. Though now they were her official bodyguards.
“Well, I have a retirement present for you. But I wanted to wait till we were in private. Though I only give it to you when you tell me what you taught me about gifts.”
Maya sighed with a grin.
“Okay. Okay, young miss. Always value a gift even if it isn’t the one you wanted. Everything else would be rude.”
Cherry clapped happily and did run to one of the twins to get something. She then placed a ball of knotted scarfs in Maya’s hands. With dread she unwrapped it. Sure enough, the heirloom gem was in the middle.
“How did you get it?” she asked bewildered.
“Fouled you good, right? I remember everything. All those thirty something years as a baby. While I could only act as a baby my mind stayed clear. You often opened and closed your safe with me on your arm. It was quite easy to memorize the combination.”
“And now you want revenge?”
“Oh no. Far from it. I do not seek revenge. True. For a while, I hated what you did. But time gave me perspective. Now I see it as a gift. Years of peace and without worry. And then when you finally allowed me to grow up I had nearly the perfect childhood. I didn’t remember much from my first one. But this time I remember it clearly. Better yet this time I savored it. And you might not want it now, but maybe one day you will. Just like I did. But there is another reason. A reason you taught me. It is my duty to get an heir. Who would be better to become one than the person who taught me what values I should teach her? Nobody will be surprised when I announce you passed away of old age. Then in one or two years, I will reveal you as my own offspring. I planned everything out. Don’t worry I will take good care of you. As you did of me.”
On her sign, the twins gagged and bound Maya. But only after the gem found its place on her chest.
Cherry could tell that this was the day. Yesterday her daughter Maya, named after her guardian, reached the age of eighteen. It had been nearly twenty years since she put the gem on her. Everything had gone along her plans. She married the second son of another Duke. He was just a decoy of course. He and his male lover could live out their love here without judgment, though still as a secret. Maya was their child, officially at least. The circle of person who knew was small.
The start was rough. Maya was a rowdy child. A rebel to show Cherry that she too hadn’t forgotten. Not that Cherry minded much. She still tried to give her the best childhood she could. It took a few years but when Maya was ‘around ten years of age’ she stopped fighting and it looked like she enjoyed her second childhood. Of course, Cherry wasn’t fooled. Still, she played her role as Maya played hers. A creaking noise broke her reminiscence and alerted her that a door was opened. It was Maya of course. Behind her stood two young lads. Not twins but the purpose was clear.
“Oh, mother. Good that I find you here. I have a gift for you.”
Cherry simply answered, "I know.”
That broke Maya’s stride for a moment. However, she quickly collected herself and came closer with more confidence.
“You knew I wouldn’t forget right?”
“Of course my dear. In fact, I counted on it.”
That again puzzled Maya.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, my dear Maya. I noticed the gem missing from my safe last night.”
“So you set a trap?” she asked and looked wearily around.
“No nothing of that sort. Let me explain. My first childhood, I barely remember. I know I was a chore to my mother. She mostly ignored me and I thought if I become more like her she would notice me more. My second childhood was better. And I thank you for it. But there is one thing I deeply regret. You did it to me out of spite. Out of hatred of what I once was. You were a regent and custodian to me. But not the one thing I hoped you would be. Giving the gem to you. Rising you as my child. That was my way of thanking you. I hope you had at least some fun along the way. I wanted to leave the hate between us behind. And I do hope you see that.”
Maya was quiet but finally nodded. Cherry took it as a sign to continue.
“But now you are here. And I guess you have the gem with you right? Maya. I ask you to please forgive me. But more importantly, I ask you to give me the one thing I longed for the most: your motherly love. Maya, please. Will you be my mother?”
Tears started to pearl down Maya’s face. Silently both of them hugged for a long time and as they separated the gem was once again on Cherry’s chest. Maya gave a weak smile.
“Maybe this time I will get rid of your mischievous nature. I will try my best to do so, as your loving mother.”
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