“I’m sure you can run away if you want to, Princess Rehksskarri.”
Ember tried to look at Mirza to see if she was serious but the black-furred maid just rapped her on the head with the brush and steered her face forward again with one finger. A moment later the brush resumed traveling through Ember’s sable hair, perhaps with a faint tremble now from suppressed laughter.
Ember was left feeling like a petulant child, with the title “princess” hanging over her head demanding better things. Without saying it, Mirza was right. Ember certainly could run away from the ball, and there wasn’t a single thing anyone at the palace could do about it.
But Ean would then have to go to the ball by himself and explain that, not only was his technical betrothed a liar, she was also an irresponsible Garagran who couldn’t really be trusted.
Or try to convince people that she wasn’t.
Or that she was, but that they should love her anyway, which was the most likely.
Oh, how she wanted to hit him!
But she didn’t want him shamed.
She buried her fingers into Brago’s feathers and scratched until his kirring made her vibrate down to her toes. At the same time she felt the brushing stop and deft fingers go to work with arranging. She let the two sensations drown out the twist she was feeling in her stomach over the fact that she was going to see Ean again.
Since Bethania had told Ember she loved him, she had managed to avoid being around him for more than a few moments, but tonight that was going to end, with probably a solid mark where she was expected to be continuously attached to his arm. Extended together-time.
And judging from all her experience with him so far, that meant a high risk she might end up loving him more than she already was.
At first she had rejected the idea that love was even the case.
Laughed in Bethania’s face, actually.
But then the old woman had given her a very simple definition for what it meant to love someone: Value their good more than your own.
That definition could just as easily include what she had felt for her brother Brathan.
And that explained exactly what was happening to her. Care for Ean was taking up all the places that were properly reserved for herself.
Oooooh, how she wanted to hit him.
A tap on her ear pulled her back to the moment and Mirza turned her to look in the mirror on her right.
“How do you DO that?” Ember asked. Her hair was pulled back in neat layers above her ear on the left, arched down over her temple and and touched along her cheek on the right, and twisted into a loose gathering of intricate waves at the back of her neck. In short, perfect.
Until Mirza brought out two small white lilies and tucked them into the waves just behind her left ear, making the whole even better.
It was almost worth walking around as a human if she could look this good as one of them. Ember reached up from petting Brago and gave Mirza’s furry hand a squeeze. Ember hated the woman’s ability to know what she liked or needed almost as much as she hated Ean’s standing up for her, but she wasn’t about to give it up.
“Do I get anything sparkly?”
Mirza tipped one of her ears and smiled just enough to show off a fang.
“You don’t need anything sparkly.”
Ember eyed herself again and decided it was true. The dress itself, an iridescent leaf-green embroidered with gold vines–actually the colors of House Tavarin–already sparkled enough on its own, and the high collar and long flowing sleeves really made bracelets or a necklace unnecessary. Not that she would have worn another necklace, even if it did need one.
She transferred Brago to a seat on the vanity, turned away from the mirror again, and flipped the front panel of the overtunic away from her stockinged feet. A moment later Mirza came around with her black dancing boots and began pulling the soft-soled wonders up over her ankles.
“So, what is so important about this ball?”
“Push,” Mirza said, struggling to get the right boot to go on. Ember pushed down with her right foot until it slid home. Mirza started to work the zipper up, twitching her ears and pursing her lips as she did.
“The Dance of the Sacrifice is very old,” she said as she finished and started on the left boot. “According to the records I read at university, the Lilta brought it with them when they came to Eddenloe, back when they were called Ahnkahdayrul. After receiving the first teaching from the four prophets, it officially became a celebration of Yahsaw.” She nodded to Ember for another push and Ember drove her foot home in that boot, hard. Mirza grunted, then glanced at her. Ember looked away.
“So it’s religious. Why the dancing?”
“I do not know. It’s not described in the old scriptures and we have very little history from Dahnkahr. Why do you not like dancing? You always complain after your lessons with Lady Bethania.”
Ember thought about it, then pulled at the blouse of her dress, which suddenly felt too tight.
“It runs counter to being a Garagran.”
Mirza finished running the zipper and looked up at her.
“Garagrans have no dances?”
“Not… as such.” Ember crossed her arms over her lap and leaned on them. Soft paws walked across her shoulders and a warm body settled in around her neck and kirred. She huffed at the kirtak.
Mirza stood up and vanished out of sight. When she came back she had a fresh cup of her custom tisane, which she handed to Ember. She then took a seat on a nearby chair.
Ember took a deep breath of steam. Today’s brew smelled heavily of citrus, with other spices, some hot, underneath it.
“Dancing, like you humans do it, has one person completely follow the other. When Bethania lead, I had to follow.” She paused. Mirza just watched her with green eyes. No boredom. No escape. Ember sat up and pulled Brago down into her lap again so she could resume petting him with one hand while she sipped at tisane with the other.
“Garagrans don’t do that. We will follow, but we are always out for ourselves. If a Garagran is called a queen, like my mother, then she will probably have other Garagrans under her, who follow and do what she says. But all of them follow based on a contract. They expect to get at least as much as they give, and if they think they are being cheated, they will leave.” She paused. “It’s a constant negotiation. Only a Garagran who is known for always finding mutually profitable routes will be followed without hesitation.”
“You try to get more than you give?”
“‘He who gives more will lose his own scales’ is one of our proverbs.”
Mirza’s eyes widened and her ears went back. Horror. Right.
“So, the day our officers decided there was no way to win the war, they just left.” She paused. “The humans stayed. But then, you humans are idiots. Some even more than others.” She stared at Mirza, wanting to leave no doubt who she meant.
Mirza leaned back for a moment, then smiled openly, a stunning expression with all those white teeth surrounded by black lips and fur.
Ember almost snarled at her. They were all doing it to her. All of them.
“So you do not like to dance because one has to follow?”
“Because I have to follow. Bethania made it very clear to me that the woman does not lead during the actual dance.”
“Why would you find that funny? It’s not funny.”
Mirza leaned forward and kissed her on the cheek. Ember had seen the same gesture from older sisters to younger. Then the maid stood and went to find Ember’s sash.
“What was that for?!” Ember wanted to get up, but Brago was settled in and she hadn’t finished her tisane, so she watched as Mirza rummaged through the wardrobe. From the way her skirt swished around in back it was obvious that her tail was twitching rapidly. With more amusement?
Mirza stepped back from the closet, her hands filled with a dead black sash. Ember drained her cup and set it and Brago aside so she could stand. Mirza approached and wrapped the sash tight around her middle.
“Tell me. Why is that funny?”
Mirza checked her over from bottom to top, tugging on the dress in places, smoothing it in others, until she was face to face with Ember.
“The dance is not about the one who leads, Princess Rehksskari. Or about the one who follows. The dance is about the dance, and what it says about the one it celebrates.”
She smiled again and gave Ember a hug that made her grunt, then went to look for something else.
There was a knock at the door.
“I will get it,” Ember said.
She crossed to the door and yanked it open.
Ean stood there with his hand in the air for another knock, dressed in a high-collared leaf-green longcoat, kneelength, split front and back, and gathered at his middle by a blood red sash that held a scabbarded longsword over his left hip. His eyes went wide when he saw her. Then wider.
Was he blushing?
She arched her right eyebrow like she had seen Trin and Bethania do.
According to my estimates and vague planning, this post should be the exact midpoint of the novel, chapterwise. So, hooray?