Junil 11, 1543
Two months after the Dawngate opened
She leaned forward, balancing on the rail of the balcony, one slim leg extended as counterbalance. Eyes closed, palms still and strong, she breathed. She listened.
Heavy air traced across her cheeks, smelling of rain fallen and yet to come, perfumed with a dozen varieties of blossom. She could imagine the brilliant crimson and violet petals painting the shadows below. Feel the moist black earth with the fingers of her thoughts. Hear the soft tapping of water-pearls sliding between the emerald fans of vegetation.
Birds chattered and sang. From the distance swayed the high, mournful calls of crested amarel. To the right, the chatter of seedah gossiping. A chorus of grey-winged pippesh yawped and piped from the left, probably in the caddah tree spreading its vast, fine canopy over the surrounding forest. Somewhere behind the building, the sawing whine of an emerald leaf-weaver. And from the underbrush below, the modest, isolate wurps of a black-bellied malkoha.
One should always take the time to learn the names of the singers.
Ah, but there it was. A trickle of dryness on the thick, wet wind, the faintest scent of dust. Always on the edge of perception, the hot still air of desert.
She opened her eyes. There, past the overgrown roofs of Rima’hai. Beyond the rolling stagger of trees growing in riotous jade abandon. Further even than the distant silver ribbon of the holy Amulay. There were clouds out there, pale and rolling, an absence of color on the edge of the world.
They called it the Great Abeyance in Nishi’an. As if it were just a temporary thing, a place where the world stopped for a little while. But she had seen the sands eating the edge of the jungle, advancing just a step every few years. The desert was hungry.
She could still feel the dust on her tongue, even after so many long years away.
“My lady?” A small, high voice.
She pushed off and turned, adjusting the fall of her silken gown. “Already time, Yala?”
The little hutan nodded and set to work, only the top of her fuzzy head visible over the cushions of the bed. “We have a good crowd for lunch,” she piped, bustling about the room, throwing open closets and yanking out drawers. “More than usual. Word must have spread.”
She smiled faintly, taking a last lingering look at the green that held the dust away from her. “It always does, my darling.”
“What shoes will you be wearing?”
“The platforms, I should think. With the ribbons.”
Yala dove headfirst into a drawer. Fuzzy feet tread the air as she rummaged, dull wooden clunks and sharp metallic clanks echoing from the high white ceiling.
She moved to the mirror and began smoothing the long falls of her hair with a jeweled comb, her fingers lingering over the silver threading through her bangs. Every day she considered dyeing them black. When she’d arrived in Rima’hai, an admirer had written a long and rambling ode to her hair. It had been long even then, hanging to her waist. “A sable river, strewn with diamonds where the sun strikes.”
Every day she touched the silver, and thought, and let it be. Dishonesty, she smiled to herself. And… unsuited to her image. A lady must comport herself with dignity. Appearance was nothing, presentation all. With poise, a lady could walk through a mire, and the mud would never seem to stick.
She sat at the desk, opened her cosmetics, and painted on her queenly mask.
Her hand jumped, smearing the fine work. She tched at herself and reached for a sponge. “Are you well, Yala?” she called, peering into the corner of the mirror.
“Nothing’s wrong!” the hutan called from under something. “I just… dropped one. Everything is-” –bang!- “-under control.”
“Do not injure yourself.”
“Never, my lady! I won’t get blood on your shoes.”
“That was… not precisely my concern, darling.”
She wafted through the curtains and took in the crowd. Faces bobbed to the surface, smiling and eager. Calls of greeting and scattered, informal applause.
She smiled graciously and bowed to them all, hand over heart, settling to one knee with careful practice. The silk gown fell away from the ribbons twining up her calf, in a manner that seemed casual and unconcerned. She’d practiced for weeks to make it seem so. The bells pinned in her hair chimed as she tilted her chin downwards, and let her eyes slide modestly to the floor.
Then she rose, spine straight, the high slit of her gown falling closed again to at least one audible sigh of disappointment. She smiled benignly in its direction. “Please, enjoy your meals,” she called over the susurrations, through scents of curry, garlic, and cloves. “I will begin momentarily.”
Her ladies smiled in welcome from beside their guests, nodding over instruments, books, drinks, or game boards. Ahnni was poring over what appeared to be a sheet of equations with a haggard looking bureaucrat, slim fingers plucking out numbers, rosebud-painted lips offering options. Kannitha perched cross-legged on a pile of cushions, cradling her sueng, sure fingers weaving the spritely notes of an Aless’he folk song from the strings. Those nearby swayed and moved their feet to the complicated rhythms.
In the dimness by the bar, one corner of Mayya’s mouth quirked up. She swirled her wine glass insouciantly and uttered a handful of inaudible words. The men at her table erupted in laughter. One was left wheezing and red-faced. His friends clapped him on the back as Mayya sipped her drink politely and graced them all with an easy smile, holding eye contact with each for exactly the same number of heartbeats.
She smiled, and with a fluid twirl of the wrist tucked her silvering strands behind one ear. A fine crowd, and all her ladies performing at their best.
A musical tweeting, mimicking one of the birds outside, drew her eyes to the kitchen entrance. Zaira’s kaffi-colored arm gestured briefly over the heads of the guests. Even in the shadows there, she could see the tension in her posture, the quick rise of fall of her breath. But Zaira had only been her a year. There was time to teach her poise.
She held on to the smile as she slid through the room, bending and swaying through a jungle of chairs and cushions, lightly brushing her fingertips across the shoulders of a favored few and murmuring words of welcome. Zaira stood with hands clasped and strained not to fidget.
“Zaira, darling, what is that delectable scent?” she improvised, drawing a hand across the girl’s arm. “You must show me what Mhadir is preparing for our guests.”
“Of course, Milady,” she gulped, swan-like neck ducking as she followed through the heavy, baffling curtains drawn across the archway.
She continued inwards a few steps, turned to check for gaps in the curtains, and folded her arms across her chest. “A problem?”
Zaira dragged her eyes up from the floor. “Please forgive me, Milady.”
“Perhaps. What shall I forgive you for?”
Zaira licked her full lips and glanced down the hall.
She flickered her eyes up, and caught a glimpse of a ragged figure ducking behind the corner. A flash of ember-tinged hair, there and gone. “Not one of our guests, I shall assume?” she asked Zaira.
“No, Milady,” the girl twisted herself in embarrassment. “She knocked at the alley door. She said the watch was after her.”
She carefully measured out an exasperated sigh, rendering it nearly mute. “And you let her in because..?”
“She asked for shelter.”
“Specifically? Her word?”
“I see.” She considered. “That complicates the afternoon, does it not? Let us have a look at her.” She lifted the hem of her gown and carefully strode across the grease-spattered kitchen floor in her gleaming shoes. Zaira trotted meekly after her. “Shoulders back, darling,” she said softly, favoring her with a brief smile. “This does not require forgiveness.”
“Thank you,” she whispered, straightening her posture.
She swept around the corner, and assessed with a glance. The girl leaned against the wall, arms tight across her stomach, glaring up pugnaciously. Rather small, pear-shaped. Cinnamon-colored skin marred by a layer of grime. Scabbed knees and knuckles. Long-healed scars along her arms. Dark hair with red highlights – probably wavy when clean, but obviously unwashed for some time. Barefoot, dirty clothes. Reeking of sweat, fear, and defiance.
And spattered with dried blood.
“Look in my eyes,” she told her. “What is your name?”
She raised her chin. Deep, dark eyes. So black they seemed all pupil. They were bloodshot and sunken with fatigue. “Reyza,” she muttered.
“I am Ashabel ehl Nahime. This is my house. Why are you here?”
“The watch is after me.”
“So I have been told. Why are you here?” Reyza’s arms tightened across her chest. She looked away to the alley door. Ashabel snapped her fingers before her face, and regretted it when the girl flinched. “Look in my eyes when you speak to me, child.”
She glared up. “I ain’t a child.”
“In my house, I judge such things,” She watched the girl for a moment. Reyza shifted her weight, hip cocking to one side, vibrating with tension even as she tried to appear casual. “Why are you here?” Ashabel repeated.
“Heard you protect people,” Reyza muttered. “Women.”
“Some of them. Why are you here?”
“I…” her eyes roamed away to the side, wandering over shelves of spices and sacks of flour. Ashabel moved to place herself back in the path of her gaze. The girl’s eyes fidgeted upward. “I killed a man,” Reyza grunted. “All right?”
Zaira swallowed with difficulty, hand flying to her mouth. She glanced up the hall, checking the fall of the curtains to the salon.
Ashabel raised one fine brow. “And why are you here? Look in my eyes.”
The girl set her jaw, yellowed teeth showing as her lips pulled back. “I had to!” she told the floor.
“Say it to my eyes,” Ashabel said. “Why are you here?”
“Why d’you keep asking that?” she snapped back. Her arms unwrapped, hands curling into brown, scarred fists. She was trembling, head to heels.
“Because you have not yet answered. Zaira?” she said, eyes flickering to her, “Please go attend to our guests.”
“Yes, Milady,” she whispered, and scurried away.
Ashabel gathered her gown in one hand, holding it off the floor as she bent like a willow, placing her eyes at level with Reyza’s. “Why are you here?” she said, softly. “Nothing you tell me shall pass my lips. Not to anyone outside. Not to anyone within. I die with it unspoken, if that should be your will.”
Reyza blinked rapidly. “He said he loved me,” she rasped, face twisted with loathing. “Wouldn’t stop following me. I was afraid to go outside. Afraid to sleep. I told the watch and they… they asked what I’d done. How I’d dressed. Was I sure I hadn’t – hadn’t led him on.” She huffed out one brief, prideful sob, and swiped roughly at her spilling eyes. “I never.”
“Look in my eyes,” Ashabel said. “There is no one here but us two. Why are you here?”
“I was alone,” she said, the corners of her mouth quivering and collapsing. “He stood too close. He was too tall. I told him I wanted to leave. He asked me w-why. Why I wouldn’t– he said he loved me. Said he was n-nice. Nice man. N-never hurt me.”
Reyza screwed her eyes closed and shivered, shoulders drooping.
“Shall I hold your hand?” Ashabel said, softly.
Reyza’s chin lifted. Her fists rose infinitesimally. “Ain’t no child,” she grated.
Ashabel nodded. “Why are you here, Reyza?”
“When he touched me, I hit him. H-hard as I could. Much as I could. He hit back, and… I, I, I don’t. Don’t know,” her teeth chattered. “I got dizzy. Everything was… There was blood. Blood on the stones.” She flushed with revulsion and shame.
“Enough,” Ashabel straightened, placing a stilling hand lightly on one trembling shoulder. “Thank you. I know that was difficult. I am sorry. Please wait a moment.” She stepped away, and saw, in the corner of her eye, Reyza sliding quietly towards the door to the alley. “Darling,” she called softly, “we will shelter you.”
Reyza nodded, turning her back, hands moving at her eyes.
She strode up the hall, carefully avoiding the grease spots, breathing in scents of onion and ginger. The heavy curtain parted soundlessly, sending her into the dimness of the salon. She blinked away the blindness and found Zaira by the bar, smiling at an older man over mancala cups. Ashabel glided to her side, smiling and nodding to the men at nearby tables.
“You pardon, Sir,” Ashabel bowed to the Zaira’s partner. “Might I have a word with Zaira?”
“Of course, of course,” he wuffed through his whiskers. “Anything you need, Lady Ashabel.”
She favored him with a ravishing smile. “Zaira, my love, might we speak in the kitchen?”
“Of course, Milady.” Zaira bowed to her partner. “My apologies, Sir. I will return as soon as I may.”
The passed back through the music and laughter, into sunlight and spice. As soon as the curtains were arranged, Ashabel turned briskly. “Take the young lady to guest quarters. Draw her a hot bath. Let her soak as long as she wishes. Ask her no questions. Burn her old clothes.” She thought a moment, then added, “Bring towels and clothes for her, but wait outside. Do not enter without her permission. Just… be available if she calls.”
Zaira nodded. “What about my guest?”
“I shall finish your game. I am certain I can find… some way to make it up to him.”
“Yes, Milady.” She hesitated, fidgeted.
“You have a question?” Ashabel prodded.
Zaira blushed and bobbed her head. “Your pardon, Milady, but… what will we do if the watch comes looking?”
“Ah,” Ashabel smiled. “Leave that to me, darling.”