I felt rather guilty towards the red haired serving woman and made much more of an effort to be pleasant to her than I probably would otherwise have done.
She was sincerely afraid of me – not Marani-of-Lucian afraid, but still, scared enough to make her tremble; could she possibly have retained any kind of knowing about her death and resurrection? – and I took the time to gentle her somewhat and ask her for food and berry tea, told her to call me Lady Isca and to procure, somehow, a hot bath for me. With wide eyes and curls bobbing, the woman backed up curtseying all the way to the door, then she ran.
I stood for a moment in the nicely cleaned officer’s quarters and waited until the relative silence of the room, slightly underlined by noises of voices from the yard and unidentifiable crunchings and clankings from afar, had soothed me enough so I could take a deep sigh.
I stripped from the strange blue trousers and the jacket, and once more, deeply wished I still had my all purpose Serein robes and undergarments; I really didn’t feel quite complete without it. My thoughts brushed then the subject of the glacier bird that went with the robe, and I shut down on that track swiftly and profoundly. Luckily, Lucian called me then and I just snuggled myself into the freshly made bed, closed my eyes, and danced through the patterns that he required to make his resurrection party go to plan.
I was well aware that he resented my instinctive approach to things, and the way I found solutions to problems so rapidly and easily, and to be honest, it did get me to wonder about how I did this myself, for the umpteenth time.
Looking at my mother and father, you just had to shake your head at the idea that I was born with this ability or talent or whatever you want to call it; yet, the knowledge of the pattern worlds was something that I already knew, I just had forgotten that I knew somehow. It was a very strange thing indeed.
Take the nexus at the Abbey.
I needed extra power for Lucian, I cast around, and there it was, right there, sitting there, ready and waiting, and even bursting with willingness to supply whatever I would ask for but simply for the asking. And as soon as I touched the structure, I just knew how to ask, exactly how and I already knew what the outcome was going to be, right down to how it would feel to experience that special surge that the nexus tool alone in all the kingdoms could provide.
In a way, it was terribly irritating. I knew all these things yet because I didn’t know I knew them, I couldn’t use them unless some sort of accident would befall me and force the discovery of knowledge that I had had all along, like a sword strapped to your back and you turn this way and that, looking for a weapon, running here and there, asking for one to be given to you, and there it was all along!
The other thing my mind had to turn to perforce, in this room especially, was the question of the White Serein.
I was feeling much better and more centred within myself now that I had revealed what must be revealed to Lucian, and he had accepted or seemed to accept it with remarkable restraint and equanimity.
He called me again and requested help with his newly raised living dead; and then, just a few moments, again to have me do some healing on poor Eddario who was not only out of his mind with terror from having to watch corpses come to life again, but also half insane already from sleep deprivation and the burdens of all his new offices and responsibilities.
I wondered why Lucian found it necessary to be so brutal with him, pushing him on this hard, and there was a disconcerting flash of if he would do the same to our son as his father had done to him, or worse, as his second father, Sepheal, had perpetrated.
The thought made me curl up tighter around my centre in the bed and to wrap my arms so tightly about myself that it actually hurt; that made me aware of what I was doing and I quickly re-directed my attention on Eddario and bathed him in so much blue and green that Lucian would have to have him run around the outside perimeters of Pertineri Palace for a threeday before he would experience another bout of exhaustion.
Lucian send me a most innocent note of appreciation and thanks, unaware of my various reservations and thoughts as he was, and turned down our link to light touch that just transmitted an awareness of the other.
I relaxed then in the bed and allowed myself to drift cautiously at a level where some of the tenseness in my mind could recede, yet not go into areas that at this time I had no wish to think about.
I don’t know why but the thought that nagged me the most was that of my little white bird. It was the only thing we rescued from the fallen tower bar ourselves; I don’t know why it was so important to me for as he so rightfully said, he could soon make me another and undoubtedly, would be more than ready to do so if I only cared to ask.
Still it confounded me that I should be fixing on this, after all nothing more than a mere trinket, when there were matters of state to consider, matters of life and death, matters of Serein, matters of marriage and matters of birth, as well.
I sighed and rolled over on my stomach, then re-considered and turned to lying on my side again instead.
Perhaps I should just give in and search for it. Its unique pattern would and should make it easy enough to find. I chided myself for a fool but gave in to the temptation anyway of opening myself to my surroundings more fully. Most likely, it was still somewhere in the city, sitting on a traders stall or in one of the many market places, on a dusty blanket. Perhaps someone had bought it already and it was decorating their mantel piece, or perched on the dressing table of a pretty lady or respected mother.
I opened myself to the patterns of the city and the noise rushed into my head as though a whole herd of horses was trampling on my brains all at the same time.
I slapped down a protective barrier just as fast as I could but not fast enough to not have left me bruised and mortified. That, it seemed, was not the way to go!
Before another attempt could be made I had to stop and adjust the flow of my own self; I wrapped myself in a sheet of soothing azure and let it soak in through my levels and layers, into my skin and my blood and all that was me. It certainly eased my head; it also seemed to strengthen my determination to not be beaten as easily as this.
I’m a bit like that, I guess. Give me a good challenge, tell me something can’t be done, it’s too dangerous, it mustn’t be done, you specifically mustn’t do it (although it’s alright for others!), it’s never been done, it can’t be done, that makes me think right away: what is it you don’t want me to find out? What are you hiding from me? Mostly, it’s something to do with power – if I found out, they would no longer be able to frighten me into submission with all their ill conceived mutterings.
With determination, I approached the problem again but this time, I went to a view of Pertineri at the Serein levels.
Here, in the land of silken spider strands that vibrated at the slightest, at the tiniest of touches, the mental air was a lot clearer. My presence here was also immediately noticed by the other residents in this web and I received feather touch brushings of welcome and invitations to join into the creator knows alone what games these children were playing here in this realm with absolutely no-one, it seemed, to say to them that to learn healing took 25 years and give them lectures about what can’t be done, mustn’t be done, and most importantly, shouldn’t ever be attempted by anyone and most least of all, by you.
My musings and emotions caused uncomfortable ripples in the fine mesh and I contained myself more tightly; I was but a visitor to this realm and should really begin to learn and respect the local conventions.
I turned my attention to the problem of locating the bird in all of Pertineri.
The trouble with these layers was as usual, their dire lack of cause and effect with the hard. At the pattern levels, Pertineri was unmissable, a massive explosion of noise and a storm of interlacements. Here, I couldn’t even tell what was Pertineri and what was, say, the sky, or the grass, or the Eastern Oceans, for it was all everywhere at once and yet nowhere at all in space, with your ups and downs and lefts and rights completely mixed up and shifting randomly to boot.
I remembered what I call Marani’s lesson in my thoughts – you cannot change the colour of a piece of cloth in pattern work, at least not to your satisfaction, unless you have a clear idea of what the colour should become. So then, I focussed on the remembrance of the bird in my hand, and the times when I traced and tracked its patterns across the levels I could then conceive, and I found its spider resonance, uniquely unique, perhaps best described as a kind of sound rather than a colour.
As we had done to re-united the Tadara, I called that sound across the strands; when this did not produce anything much of a response, I moved into one silky pathway at random and from within its structure, called the sound again.
Joyously, it travelled, self perpetuating and without any energy expenditure by me at all, and when I lifted clear from the strand I could track it spreading in a fully many dimensional ripple across the web.
The others here picked up the sound and made a harmony to it; it was very nice but confounded me deeply because I thought that in that choir I would not be able to perceive the bird at all, should it tingle back in resonance at any point.
Which goes to show what little I have sought to learn of Serein matters.
When the entire web resonated in a most glorious harmony, a special song based entirely on the essence of my glacier bird, there was a high note entering and singing clearly and with brilliance the theme of that song above all others. For a moment, I thought perhaps one of the White Serein had not been able to contain themselves and join the making of the universal music, and then I realised it was the bird itself in total resonance to the song that had been calling to it, to all parts and to everything that it was, that it is, that it will be and beyond.
Desperately, I tried to track back to where the voice originated, trying to shut out the glorious harmonies that would make you weep if you allowed yourself to take too much notice, when I received a call and direct contact from a unit formed of Reyna, Jilean, Taray, Vona, Cyno and one other who I couldn’t quite pin point in vibration.
Isca, you must allow the harmony to guide you.
You cannot understand whilst you remain above/below/outside the song. You must enter the song.
I don’t know how.
(Resistance, fear, no. I cannot join like that with you. I cannot sing with you.)
Can you bring my bird to me? Can you show me where to find it?
(Sadness. Deep and profound sadness. Pity. Sighing. Acknowledgement)
(Tremendous relief, gratitude. Feeling like a coward, this is a defeat?)
The contact receded from me and around me, the song continued, and yes, it was beautiful. It was more than beautiful. It was a perfection on a level I had not known and yet again, I did know it well enough. I did remember it well enough.
Ah! Damn this!
I dove from that level much like you would jump off a wagon that was travelling towards a most deeply irritating place you really had no intention to be going and landed back in conscious awareness inside myself comfortably in the bed, warm, safe in comparison, yet that damned song was still there, sitting way back in my awareness and going around and around.
I sat up and rubbed both my hands strongly through my hair, shook my head and finally, the song began to fade away and it was a dramatic sense of relief to me. Heartbeats later, I felt a soft nudge and received a link request from Reyna, a straightforward link where she was she and me was me and there was no singing whatsoever.
How would you like to receive the information that you sought? (pictures, webs, patterns?)
Pictures will be fine.
A white room, Pertineri white, richly decorated and bordered with actual gold inlays. Double windows, open to a garden that is formal yet natural both, with a small bridge spanning an ornamental pond and carefully placed unique specimens of foreign plants, trees and shrubs. If you lift your gaze you can just see beyond the walls of this garden a tall set of four spires that are spiralling upwards to a point where blue and gold flags are flying.
By the side of the door stands a delicate table with legs that sweep inward and outward and terminate in what seem to be small golden orbs for feet; and on the table, an arrangement of yellow and white flowers, and my bird, my darling bird, with its beak turned so it seems to be wistfully looking out into the garden.
The picture fades and I am so glad, so delighted that Reyna resonates in pride and happiness as well.
Thank you! I’m sure I can find it from that! There cannot be many houses like that, right next to that four spire place!
It was a pleasure to be of help, Reyna sent to me happily but trying to keep her composure.
I thanked her most sincerely one more time, even remembered to have her thank the others as well and give my regards to the adults in the house, to have them know that Trant was vanquished and we had an interim regent, and we dropped out of the link at about the same time as there was a light knock on the door and Lota the serving woman entered with great caution.
“My lady, do you wish to bathe first or eat first?” she asked nervously.
My stomach growled its own answer and I had to smile.
“Food first, I think,” I said, and a few short moments later she returned with a big tray and a tablecloth folded over her arms.
I did not fancy clambering around dressed in the officers shirt so I had her bring the tray to me for eating in bed, a most delightful luxury that really did make me feel like I was a lady.
“Is there anything else, my lady?” she asks and yes, there are a lot of things.
It can’t be long now before Lucian will call for me and have me parade around in front of these strange people, these highborn people who whisper and think bad things about me, and I will once more endeavour to be contained and stand up straight, and undoubtedly, will once again do something wrong that will displease Lucian and remind him forcibly that I am so way below in station and rank, he would probably be better off with a serving maid such as this one here for at least she might have observed how ladies behave and have a template to base her own behaviours upon.
“I have to attend – a function in a short while,” I said to her. “And I don’t know what to do about clothes, or my hair.”
She opened her pale blue eyes wide and there was a happy response in her mind. These matters where most familiar to her, safe places where she had some expertise. I followed into her mind and watched her help dress and groom various wives and officer’s courtesans that came to stay here. I sighed unnoticeably into my tea. Lota would be able to help me.
Hesitantly, she asked, “My lady, do you have any combs? Clips? Needles?”
I shook my head. “Nothing. We arrived here with nothing at all. Well, apart from this,” I said and reflexively touched the necklace which was once again safely around my neck where it belonged by all rights, a sign and seal that Lucian had if not forgiven me, at least accepted things as they were. I remember his finger tips absolutely steady on my neck, there on the castle hill, and his mind so clear and still as he gently re-bonded the patterns. My movement drew her eyes to the priceless ruby and she sighed and said reverently, “It is so beautiful, my lady.”
That it was. And soon, I would have my bird back, too. I shook my head at my own stupidity. There were far more important matters at hand.
Lota had been thinking.
“My lady, I can fetch everything we need. But if time is short, it might be better if we went to a ladies apartment and get you dressed there? I know of a couple of ladies, one of them is about your size?”
I considered it, tracked her thoughts on the matter and she was right. It was going to be difficult and of course, I needed a decent dress. Having her run backwards and forwards was not a good choice. The woman she was thinking of who would lend me her apartments and hair slides was a courtesan whose quarters were just a short way from the west gates of the perimeter wall, a walk of perhaps ten minutes, at the most.
I nodded my agreement and sought a communications link with Lucian to which he responded quickly – a little too quickly even, and as though he was engaged with something he did not want me to have a knowledge of. I put my head to the side and considered going around his shieldings, but then decided not to. Whatever he was doing, it was his business.
How long, my lord?
About an hour, perhaps an hour and a half. We will be the very last ones to arrive.
I will leave the palace to find a place to get dressed.
(Acknowledgement) Will you return to our quarters and wait for me?
Yes I will.
He was gone. Resolutely, I put down the tea, got up from the bed and put a piece of meat between two slices of freshly baked bread, taking a bite from it whilst walking across the room to find the blue trousers.
Behind me, Lota was rigid in shock at my dreadful behaviour and I stopped in mid chew and mid movement.
Carefully, I placed the bread onto the table by the fire and put the trousers back on a chair. Swallowed and found the green dress in the wardrobe, shrugged off the shirt and pulled the mountains of green silk over my tousled hair, all the while getting the third party perspective from Lota who was convinced by now that I must have been brought up by the travellers, or a pack of wild beasts.
What had we said about this kind of thing? “Can you take such ignominy?”
That made me smile and I contorted myself in order to push the open fabric together at my neck and meld it together, here and there, just so the damn thing would hold for the short trip across the palace perimeter.
I tried the other wardrobe for more of the poor officer’s clothing and found one more cloak in there, a dark brown woollen affair which I resolutely slung over my shoulders to hide the gaps in the back of the dress and the far too low cleavage at the front when I pulled it together tightly.
I patted down my hair, picked up the bread and meat from the table, stepped into my worn boots with my bare feet and smiled at the mortified servant.
“All ready. Let’s go.”
She led the way and I followed her, eating as we walked along. We attracted no attention from the many soldiers in full and half dress, standing around in groups and knots and talking amongst themselves.
Lucian’s raising of the dead was the topic of conversation everywhere and the question as to whether he would take the crown for himself, in spite of what he had said in his address. Many felt that the new Duke of Solland was his puppet and nothing more.
I found it a little irritating because it wasn’t just him who had accomplished the seeming miracle that impressed them all so much, but then I thought that it had been his idea in the first place and all I’d done was to provide the energy. It also occurred to me that it might come in useful if people didn’t know just how much we worked together in this way. I could be an interface between Lucian and the people’s fear of him.
Once I had dispatched the bread and meat, I drew alongside the scurrying maid as we approached the fallen walls that no longer had a need for guards at the gate, there being no more gate as it where, and said, “Where in the city is a building with four spiral spires that fly blue and yellow flags?”
She missed her stride briefly and cast me a sideways glance but slowed down a little, which made our pace more comfortable by far. “Why, that would be the Guild Masters house,” she said, and I noticed with a trace of amusement that she had not said, "My Lady".
“How far is that from here?”, I enquired as we picked our way across the rocks and boulders in the gathering gloom. The sun was below the horizon now. One hour to go.
She stopped and turned a quarter turn to the right.
“There, you can see it from here,” she said and pointed.
I followed her arm and pointing finger and saw the spires and their flags, sharply black against the multicoloured, banded sky, clearly defined and unmistakable for they were the only towers in that direction as tall or slim and with that strange spiral twist.
I would be able to find this without any help from anyone. I was satisfied and indicated that we should continue on our way. Lota was desperate to find out what I would want with the guild masters, or find out more about me, about Lucian, about the raising of the dead, anything really. It was hard to be a servant and to have so many questions buzzing in your mind.
All around the perimeter of the castle lay a very wide road way to allow for troops to pass many men abreast. Beyond that roadway was a verge where high trees where planted and which made the boundary of the palace and the rest of the town, packed tight and tighter still, like a whole congregation of beasts barely held at bay behind a fence.
We followed the road that was busy even at this hour with all sorts of traffic and a great many soldiers, mostly in the colours of the palace guard, only for a very short time before turning into a side road which lead through the trees and across the divide, stepping out into veritably another world.
Here, as I said, houses were tightly packed together so there were no spaces between them at all; in fact it was often difficult to tell where one ended and another would begin. They were three, four stories high and the roadways between them narrow and winding. This was not a good part of the king’s capital, but not the worst by a long way.
We walked in the canyon of houses where windows threw flickering lights and all kinds of strange people hurried by for no more than a few dozen steps before Lota led the way to a set of stairs which took you off the road and onto a wide landing where the entrance door to this dwelling lay, just a house to all intents and purposes, Pertineri-white walls, small iron gated windows and a big door with iron fixings and a huge knocker shaped like a fat woman’s head who was doomed to hold a big ring in her mouth for all eternity.
Lota knocked three times and immediately, the door was opened by an elderly thin woman dressed in sober black with a matching black cap on her head.
She cast me a most quizzical glance and Lota and her exchanged a few hurried whispers.
I took no notice of them and looked around the inside of the spacious hallway in some amazement.
It was a lush riot of paintings, many rugs on the floor. Life sized statues of women, some in marble, some in wood with inlays, stood around the walls. Many, many containers of all kinds of shapes and colours, filled with an overflowing of flowers of one kind or another, and from the ceiling hung very many candle holders that had glass droplets attached to them to sparkle the light around the room.
There were carpets on the stairs and on every other step, more vases of cut flowers.
“My lady,” Lota said and brought me out of my revery, “this way, please.”
The thin old woman dressed in black and Lota made their way up the steps and I gathered the dress and followed them. The landing split into two wings of stairs, one to the left and one to the right, and I could see a balcony that would allow someone to see everything that transpired below, on the opposing wall.
There were many doors, wooden and painted white, and they had round opening knobs made from what looked like glass or crystal. I had never seen such a thing.
The two women led the way into a vast apartment where the predominant colours were pink and red, and the general lushness of the place had run completely out of control.
An absolutely enormous bed dominated the left part of the room, enough for a headman’s group to lie in a row, and it was covered in strange furs that were of no animal I’d ever seen, until it occurred to me that they must have been dyed into these strange pinks and reddish pinks from white.
There were huge paintings on all the walls, sometimes lots of them all mosaiced together to make space for even more, and I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw what was depicted upon them. My eyes swept across them and fell onto the central one, where one single woman was being made a sport of by what appeared to be half a dozen men all at once, and what I could see from the expression of her face, was a willing part of it.
I felt strange, nauseous, and spiralled into all kinds of things which included memories from the dark strata and I think I would have fainted if not a new voice and presence had addressed me with amusement.
“My lady, how can we serve you?”
A woman with regal bearing, dressed in yellow silks and with her dark hair tied up in a complex arrangement that was held in place with spiralling diamonds, was addressing me.
I centred on her and anchored to her eyes and presence. She was a great beauty and probably, had been even more so when she was younger. There was an amusement about her and a knowing and also a resignation, but right now, she was totally intrigued by who I was supposed to be and tried to reconcile that what she had heard with the me she could observe, whilst at the same time being deeply delighted and grateful to the fates to have me be delivered to her rather than to anyone else in the city.
I don’t know exactly what she saw when we stood, thus locked in a straightforward human version of the link, but she narrowed her eyes fractionally, just for a heartbeat and took a step back. Then, she bowed her head to me.
I nodded briefly, why, I have no idea, and said, “What is your name?”
She started to answer, swallowed her first impulse back which had been to give herself the title of Lady under which she conducted her business, and instead answered me with a simple, “Delessa, my Lady.”
“Well Delessa, I thank you for coming to my aid this night,” I said, calmly now and half myself, and half quite not myself, for myself would not have chosen such a speech nor that dry sarcastic tone that clearly underlaid my voice. It mattered not. I needed all the help that I could get to get me through this evening and to find a place of safety for me at some time, in the dark, with Lucian by my side. I sighed and continued.
“I will be attending a function in less than one hour and need whatever help you can provide for me to get me presentable.”
Very carefully, Delessa said, “You will be attending the judgement of King - Lord Trant?”
I just gazed at her for a moment. She held my eyes then forced herself to look down and not attempt to stare me out. This woman had learned a thing that I never had – how to know when to back down. She must have avoided a good many beatings with this remarkable skill alone.
“Where do we start?” I asked the room, and Lota came forward, curtseyed to Delessa and said in a little girl’s voice, “Perhaps we should choose a dress?”
“Indeed, indeed,” Delessa said and clapped her hands. She had rings on every finger, even her thumbs. I had not seen such a thing before and was quite fascinated by this, and the many bangles and chains around her slender white wrists.
“If you would follow me, Lady … Ishca?”
I smiled and dropped my head to hide it. “Isca,” I corrected her.
“Lady – Isca. This way please.” There was a door that did not appear like a door for it was shaped just like the wall and had a painting on it, just like the rest of the walls. She opened it and we stepped into a big room that contained nothing but clothes, and shoes in endless rows, and hats upon hats, and cloaks, and wraps, and strange white affairs of one kind or another which I took to be shifts and undergarments.
The colours were overwhelming and I was glad Lucian wasn’t here. They would have given him a veritable headache.
To me, it was overwhelming too and outside my understanding, way beyond a place where I could make a decision about what to choose from such a room.
I shook my head and said quietly, “Delessa, I know of some things but I truly do not know about such things as this. I would have you choose on my behalf. My Lord tends to wear black and I have no wish to be too garish standing next to him. Also, I am uncomfortable with dresses that are cut too low, or too tight.”
Delessa stood, stroking a fur fabric on a cloak that rippled under her fingertips. She nodded and said, “Perhaps my lady would like to take a bath, and I will prepare a choice of three or four dresses in the meantime?”
I supressed a sigh of relief and said evenly, “That would be most acceptable.”
I was led along the corridors to a room that held a pool sunken into the floor itself, ready filled and warm to the touch, big enough for ten people, easily.
Neither Lota nor the woman dressed in black made any attempts to leave, and eventually it occurred to me that they thought it was normal to watch their employer take a bath. I shook my head and kept the “ignominy” thought in my head as I pretended to undress without a care in the world and quickly slipped myself into the water.
It was pleasant enough and after a few turns and dives I had come to a place where I no longer was too deeply concerned about my spectators. The water was a little strange and smelled of something I could not quite place but it served well enough to rejuvenate me and sparkle me from the inside out.
When I stepped from the pool, the women were ready with a large sheet and the thought that I had not used the scrubbing stones or the wooden paddles for in-depth cleansing. It did amuse me to the point where I nearly giggled. Wooden paddles indeed. There were, it seemed, some benefits to be had from being a commoner born. We just enjoyed rolling around in water until we felt clean.
It was most disconcerting to have them both rub at me and at my hair. I clearly caught from them that this is what you do with a lady, but it went too far for my liking. I stepped forward and out of their double attack and held up a hand.
“Thank you, but there truly is no need for this,” I said and evaporated the water swiftly, cloaking myself briefly in white mist and then I was dryer than any amount of pummelling and pulling on my poor hair could possibly have hoped to achieve.
I should have done something like that earlier, for after the drying and the magical untangling of my hair – well yes, I did it deliberately; my hair moves like snakes for a moment before falling perfectly brushed to my shoulders, and the effect was quite unsettling, even to myself when watching in a mirror – the two women treated me with a great deal more respect and stopped presuming to pounce on me with things, but asked permission before they were allowed to proceed with whatever they had planned for me.
I was given a silken pink robe that was very reminiscent in feel on my bare skin of my dear Serein garment, and we went back to the room where Delessa had placed four dresses on the big bed. Beneath each one sat their own perfectly matching shoes with fabric coverings and buttons that looked like pearls and jewels, and above each one lay a collection of equally matching items such as ribbons, a small purse, and so forth.
I looked at them and sighed.
Delessa had an empathic idea of my preferences for blues and greens, for all dresses were of that colour. There was a rich blue, a rich deep turquoise one, a grass green and a pale blue one which I dismissed immediately.
I chose the turquoise dress.
Before I was allowed to put it on, I had to climb into an uncomfortable construction that restricted my breasts and squashed them upwards, and restricted my breathing by tying too close around my stomach. Strange little trousers went with it that had a hole between the legs and felt most disconcerting, and a padding thing was tied around my waist. Then Lota kneeled and struggled my feet into white stockings of a thinnish material that were laboriously tied to the ends of the trousers that came halfway down my thighs.
I don’t think I’ve ever felt more ridiculous in my entire life.
It helped that the other three women thought it perfectly normal and I even caught a thought from Delessa that my figure wasn’t all bad and there was something that could be done with me.
Then they put the dress on me and Lota set to stitching me into it with fine, precise and mechanical movements.
I stood and wondered about the ins and outs of being a lady whilst Lota worked in silence and Delessa and the old woman watched.
Delessa came and made comments and pointed out places where more stitching was required, and finally, I was allowed to turn and face the huge mirror on the wall opposite the bed.
God how I hated that.
It just wasn’t me. I shook my head and nearly cried then, but managed to control myself and stepped closer to the mirror.
The turquoise dress fought a war with Lucian’s jewel at my throat and the brown haired girl that was trapped within it. Rather than making me look like a lady, it pointed out more strongly than even the lesser green one had that I was obviously ill at ease and in the wrong skin altogether.
Lucian would have hated it, too.
It was far too ornate. Every little bit of it was covered in sparkling little beads, scrolly embroidery, complicated interlacements of tiny pieces of lace around the sleeves that reminded me of the tops of winter roots, and of course, the deep square cleavage from which my breasts seemed to burst like overripe goldenfruit – and they felt as bruised as that, too.
I took a deep breath and tuned the women behind me into the faded distance whilst focussing entirely on the dress and the mirror.
I reached into the patterns and dissolved all and every little bit of embroidery first. With the scrolls and swirls, the little beads fell to the ground like rain. I smoothed and straightened the fabric so the needle marks would disappear and the dress was beginning to make a bit of sense.
I turned to the sleeves and disbanded the lace, replacing it with a simple open flowing shape of fabric instead.
Next, I loosened the bindings on my breasts and stomach and stretched the fabric gently so that it accepted my breasts as they dropped to a normal position and my stomach could exhale again.
I undid the padding package by severing the strands that held it, and it fell gladly to the floor, at the same time as the dress fell gladly across my real hips.
I gave a little sigh of delight and turned to the cleavage, remoulding and re-shaping the fabric until it covered my shoulders, to my neck, and I left a deep V shape that just reached to the top of my breasts, revealed nothing but allowed the necklace jewel to shine through.
I imagined Lucian standing by my side, and that was so easy. He just appeared in the mirror right next to me and I gave thought as how to synchronise our colours. I took the turquoise and moved it down into a jade, yet still that was not right and finally, it came to me to deepen and to darken the jade until it was a beautiful, rich colour that resonated Lucian’s black yet was not at all black in and of itself.
I let my vision of him go and returned to my appearance and it was so much better, I gave a deep and meaningful sigh of relief.
I may not have looked like a great lady, but I looked like myself. The deep, profound shade of darkest jade brought out the highlights of red in my hair and enhanced it, and now the jewel was perfection in the context of the whole appearance.
I turned to the three women who stood speechless behind me.
“What needs to be done with my hair?” I asked of them, and most reverently, Lota came forward and asked me to take a seat at the dressing table.
I did and she brushed my hair, expertly set to coiling it and pinning it, and set a strange little nest on top of my head to give it a height because it was not long enough to make an impressive pile all by itself.
I watched her with some fascination, and when she was done and meant to apply a large strand of bejewelled binding to it, I stayed her.
It was fine the way it was. Indeed, it was more than fine. It looked actually very nice, accentuating my face, making my neck appear much longer and it made me look much older, too. I nodded to myself in the mirror and made to get up from the chair when Delessa appeared and stayed me.
“Please, have some of these,” she said, nearly beseechingly, and showed me a tray that contained earrings of many different colours and shapes.
I smiled up at her and said, “I have never worn earrings.”
With amazement, she looked closely at my ears where the tell tale pin prick marks were obviously absent and she was both horrified and beaten.
I stood up and walked over to fetch my boots when all three women very nearly started to wail, mentally if not physically.
“Please Lady Isca, you MUST wear proper shoes!”
I allowed myself to be thus convinced and got rid of the bejewellments off the pair that had matched the turquoise original, shaped the colour to the correct hue and gingerly stepped into them.
They threw me forward onto my toes and unbalanced me with their high heels. They were most uncomfortable, pinching everywhere. I flowed them and that made matters marginally better but did nothing to reduce the pressure on my toes.
Gingerly, I took a few steps. They shortened my stride perforce and made me feel like a demented walking bird.
Why oh why had I been born a woman?
I should have married Chay and there would have never been any need for such bizarre performances!
I really couldn’t believe I just thought that and was deeply and sincerely glad that Lucian wasn’t around to catch that childish outburst. Control yourself, Isca. You can lead a dungeon revolt and make the patterns dance. You can learn to walk in these goddamn shoes!
I walked up and down with the women’s eyes on me like lead weights until I felt I had some familiarity with this strange form of making sure you can’t possibly walk properly.
Delessa said, “May I make a suggestion, my lady?”
I looked at her and thought, anything to make this agony more bearable. But instead, I just nodded.
“If you walk with one foot in front of the other and allow your hips to swing, like so …” she demonstrated it to me, her skirts picked up high so I could see her feet and exaggerating the movements, “… it makes it much easier.”
I tried it and it worked, though it made me feel even more of a fool. Lucian, give me strength, I thought as I sincerely tried to copy her movements and failed abysmally. In the end, I did the only thing I could think to do. I reached right inside her mind and extracted the requisite patterns, cleared them of content and took them into myself.
It was a bizarre sensation, but as with the riding and the fighting, it did the trick in an instant.
I walked the length of the room and back again, perfectly balanced and perfectly at ease, hips swinging left and right in time with the steps that tracked a single line, and the three women clapped in admiration and astonishment.
I halted in front of them, put my head back a little and said, “I thank you for your efforts, dear ladies, and you, Lady Delessa, I thank you for the dress. Perhaps you would advise me of what kind of payment you require?”
Her thought stood in the room like a flare – if only I would tell her something about Lord Tremain, it would be payment for a dozen dresses! But in the hard, she just looked down and shook her head, “It was a great privilege to be of help in this very small way, Lady Isca.”
I thought for a moment about a memory I had of Lucian that might be suitable for the sharing and for some reason, I thought of him fighting that headman’s group in the circle of stones. The thought made me smile. The Lady Delessa had a liking for men and a naked swordfight might excite her well enough.
I reached for her and gently placed a link into her mind. She was responsive, controlled and in spite of the initial shock, had a keen and hungry intelligence that was instantly fascinated by what I did. I started the memory at the point where Lucian stood, wrapped in his red and gold tapestry, looking out towards the horizon where the first clouds of dust from the approaching hooves became apparent over the plateau’s edge, and finished it with the point at which he struck his sword into the ground and threatened the five Serein.
I gently severed the link and looked at her with interest as she came too, her mouth half open and her eyes wide in astonishment and also, in utter delight
“Was that …” she whispered and I smiled at her.
“That really happened. You saw/felt/experienced it through my own eyes.”
She wanted to say something, make a comment, ask me more but I made a little gesture which trailed the red stardust in the air. I wondered why that sometimes happened and what it meant, but one thing it always accomplished: it made everyone fall silent and forget what they were thinking of just before.
I took the opportunity and stepped through to the officer’s quarters to await Lucian’s call.