The maids found her at the breakfast table, stuffing herself.
Ember looked up as they surrounded her, suddenly on either side in a swirl of green and gray skirts. She looked from one to the other. One face was covered in short, pitch-black fur, set with cool blue eyes and crowned with rich red-brown hair kept in a tight bun. The other face had the familiar olive skin of a Lilta, with a smooth complexion, a perfect oval shape, sparkling brown eyes and black silk hair in a complex layered ponytail. Both were smiling wide smiles that managed to show far too much fang and had their long, pointed ears pinned back like they didn’t care at all what she had to say.
“Come with us,” said a familiar voice from behind.
Ember spun around and was somewhat surprised to see the woman who had talked about killing one of Ember’s kind herself outfitted in a fancy, high-collared green and red dress. Granted, it did have a loose fitting skirt made up of separate but overlapping square panels that looked like it would be easy to move in, and there was a sheathed longsword stuck in the gold sash around Trin’s waist, and she was a princess in her own palace…
But it still seemed out of sorts with her personality.
She was still wearing her boots, though.
Ember glanced at the maids, noted that their dresses had a similar style despite a more subdued color scheme, and wondered if this was the official court dress of the Tavarin palace.
Next to Ember, Immilene popped to her feet and tried to bow and salute at the same time. Trin nodded to her, then looked back to Ember.
“Where are you taking me?” Ember asked.
“To meet the woman who keeps this place from falling apart. But first, to get you dressed properly.”
Trin motioned to the maids, who grabbed Ember’s arms on either side and hoisted her up. Then, led by Trin and followed by an Immilene who had to skip to keep up, they whisked her down wood-panelled hallways, up a flight of stairs, down more hallways, and into a room filled with dresses, fabrics, cutting tables, tailor’s tools and several strange machines with arches, pistons, wheels and pedals, surrounded by boxes filled with spools of thread.
A thin old Liltan man with pepper-and-salt hair was seated at one of the machines in the corner, guiding a long piece of blue fabric across the top of the table as a needle thrummed up and down laying a line of stitching across the cloth. When he saw them he stopped, as did the needle, and stood up from behind the table, bowing to Trin.
“Jaksin, this is Lady Firrisskahv. Bethania wants her properly dressed.”
The man grabbed a long fabric tape with markings on it and approached with quick steps, looking Ember up and down before he even reached her. When he reached her he stopped directly in front and studied her eyes and her face from an uncomfortably close distance. Next he looked at her hair, pulled out a long piece of paper covered in squares of all colors and held it up beside her head, and hummed to himself.
“Lift your arms,” he said politely. When Ember complied he wrapped the tape around her hips, her waist, her chest below her breasts and her chest over her breasts and around her neck. Then he held it along her leg from hip to heel and hip to underarm, over her shoulders, up along her spine, and finally along each of her arms. When he was done he grabbed a small bound book and made a series of notations.
“One week,” he said. “I’m backlogged.”
“Do you have anything that will fit her right now?” Trin asked. “Something formal?”
The man glanced at Ember again, then looked over the racks along the walls. He nodded, crossed to one rack, and pulled off a long green and black dress in the same style as Trin’s, as well as an amber gold sash that looked to Ember like it would match her own eyes. He handed the dress to the black-furred maid and then pointed to a curtained alcove.
The maids hustled her into it and stripped her naked in mere tikkits, replacing the blue dress and cotton shift with lightweight gray mepi underclothes, loose trousers and tight blouse. The new dress turned out to be two dresses, both of slick tamaysilk. One was a black wrap that went all the way around her, with long, loose sleeves, a collared v-neck when closed, and a smooth floor-length skirt split front and back all the way up to her hips. The other was a close-fitting, sleeveless emerald tunic that pulled down over the black dress and came down to the very bottom of her waist, with long, wide panels that hung down before and behind, covering the slit in the black dresses skirt all the way to the floor.
The furred maid zipped the green tunic up in back, snugging a collar that went all the way up Ember’s throat. She then undid Ember’s messy ponytail, pulled out a comb and began working the tangles out of her hair. The Lilta maid wrapped and tucked the sash tight around Ember’s waist, then went out and came back with some boots and socks, even nicer than what Ember had received in Sara’s Rest, and put those on her feet. In short order they had every bit of her smoothed, tightened, brushed or braided.
Lastly the furred maid brought out a gemmed choker and put that on over the collar whiile the Lilta maid added a pair of gold bracelets around Ember’s wrists. She was glad when she realized they were done, as her head had been spinning the entire time. It had been ages since anyone fussed over her even half that much, and never in human form where every touch was a threat against her soft skin.
They pulled her out in front of Trin, who smiled, and Immilene, who applauded, and spun her to face a mirror.
Ember had not known she could look beautiful in human form. She reminded herself of the wives of the Bortin generals she had seen in court in Tenkreilla. Her hair impressed her the most, as the Liltan maid had helped put it into a layered ponytail like her own, and the complexity went well with her scales.
“Time to meet Bethania,” Trin said. Ember noted a hesitation.
“Should I be worried?” she asked.
Trin cocked her head to one side, possibly considering her response, then shook her head.
“Just be on your guard.”
Trin and the maids took her back out into the hall and whisked her along again, this time bringing her to a stop outside an intricately carved door in dark murako wood. Trin knocked on the door and a muffled voice said, “Enter.”
Trin opened the door partway and motioned for Ember to go in.
“We’ll be back later,” Trin said.
Ember watched her leave, noting Trin’s hand tugging Immilene along, and wondered just what she should expect inside the room from this “Bethania.”
She studied the door, noting that it was covered in carvings of roses that were almost lifelike despite their lack of color, complete all the way down to the sharp thorns along the intertwining stems. She reached out and touched one of the thorns.
“I said enter,” the voice called again and Ember carefully pushed the door open and stepped inside.
Immediately the smell of blooming flowers filled her noses and she looked around. Pale, polished kren-wood flooring spread out in every direction, almost glowing under more of the electric lighting her tixeri guard had told her about. The smell of flowers came from the far side of the room, at least twenty strides away, where rows of flower beds sat on tile flooring under an overarching structure of plate glass windows.
Ember counted several roses of various colors, along with a wide variety of other flowers, not all of them in bloom.
But where was Bethania?
She looked again and spotted an elegant Lilta woman wearing a high-collared tamaysilk dress like her own, forest green for the tunic and blood red for the underdress, with beautiful gold embroidery forming forming floral patterns all along the edges of both parts. The woman had steel-gray hair braided into a crown around her head that merged into a tail at the back which currently fell down over her right shoulder and all the way to her lap. She was kneeling, probably on some kind of kneeling stool, and stroking her braid as she read out of a giant book open on a low reading stand in front of her. Her skirts spread out around her on the polished floor, forming a green and red cross.
Several tikkits passed while the woman did nothing but read quietly, perhaps a whole kella, and Ember wondered what she was supposed to do.
“Close the door,” the woman said in a high, musical soprano that somehow made Ember feel like a bumbling child.
Ember looked at the door, still open, then closed it loudly. She winced as the noise echoed across the room.
Ember looked and saw the woman pointing at a black and gold cushion laid out on the floor three strides beyond the woman’s reading stand. She approached and lowered herself as carefully as she could, needing one hand on the floor to settle quietly. The cushion was firm but comfortable.
As soon as she was down the woman closed the book and slid the reading stand across the floor to the base of a nearby bookshelf with one smooth motion. Then she looked up at Ember and met her eyes.
Plain brown, almond shaped with a subtle slant, surrounded on either side by the crinkle of crows feet.
As cool and calm as if cut from diamond.
Ember immediately began to fidget under that gaze, which saw nothing but her and gave not a clue how their owner felt.
Was this where Trin had learned to see everything about a person?
It made sense now. Only this gaze was ten times worse. Ember felt uncountably dirty and wanted to hide. Her breathing sped up, but she didn’t look for a way out, vaguely remembering Trin’s hand on her shoulder back in the village. She wouldn’t die.
The woman did nothing but look at her for what seemed like several kellas. Or maybe a whole mark. It was an eternity.
“Why are you in my kingdom?” she asked at last.
“Do not lie. You’ve met my granddaughter. I see more.”
“I’m… I’m running from people who want to kill me.”
The woman let the silence drag out as Ember considered how much to say, and whether she would be contradicting any of what she had already claimed.
“Forget your previous story,” the woman said. “I will ask and you will answer honestly, or I will see you gone. Do you understand? Your safety lives or dies with me.”
Bitter cold curled through Ember’s gut at the simple clarity of the woman’s words.
Could she survive outside Salshira? Was it worth the risk of what they might do if they knew?
They could turn her over. On her own she might…
She would starve. Or be hunted down somewhere else. That was that life. That was where she had been headed.
She would tell. But no more than she had to.
“I am the last heir to a kingdom. As long as I live, I am a threat to its conquerors. That is all.”
The woman cocked her head, the same gesture as Trin, and flicked her long ears a few times, then nodded.
“Do you want to marry my grandson?”
Ember snorted before she realized what she was doing. She blushed, and shook her head.
“No, Lady Bethania.”
The woman flicked her ears again, but made no other response.
“Do you know why my granddaughter brought you to me?”
Ember ran through a long list of possibilities, but still had no real idea.
“No, Lady Bethania.”
“Because she trusts me. She trusts that I won’t kill you, unlike some others might. She trusts that I will see more than just a threat to the kingdom, despite the fact that I know the evil of the Garagran Kings even better than her. In short, she believes in me. Or perhaps in something in me. That a human can contain something more than the common evil.”
Suddenly there was a longsword in the woman’s hands. Ember hadn’t seen it before and didn’t know where it had come from. The polished steel glittered in the electric lighting.
Ember’s heart began to hammer.
“Should she? What do you believe, worshiper of Nk’drak’sil?”