Khalik sat for a moment, then bounced out of his seat, rubbing his hands together. “I’ll invite him for tomorrow! Tell Maryam to cook the best dishes and find something to wear.”
Lyra rolled her eyes. “He said next week. If you invite him tomorrow, he’ll think you’re too stupid to understand time. Besides, he’s a Prince, and a new delegation from Sundaria docked this morning, he’s probably accompanying Her Imperial Majesty to a reception for them, do you expect him to drop that for you?”
Khalik’s face fell. “When then?”
Lyra sighed and looked over her brother’s shoulder to where his personal attendant, Orlan, lurked in the shadows by the kitchen door. “Tomorrow, the Prince will mention to his servants which nights he will be free to dine next week, and hopefully something of what he hopes to be served. You will send Orlan to the palace on an errand. He will find out the day and the meal, and tell you and Maryam. You will send the invitation, Maryam will order the ingredients, and the Prince will be satisfied.”
Orlan bowed and said. “His Highness is going to expect you in a new outfit as well, Lady, you need time to arrange that.”
She smiled at the manservant. Orlan was secretive and sly, and took no interest in keeping his master from social embarrassment. To be fair, it probably took all his time to keep Khalik from financial embarrassment, it certainly wasn’t her brother who’d kept the family business solvent after her father’s death.
Khalik waved an impatient hand. “I’ll find something for you during the week, if I leave it to you, the Prince will think he’s accidentally walked into the healers’ wards at the sanctuary, rather than a party, even if the others are properly dressed.”
Lyra and Orlan exchanged worried glances, and Lyra said. “His Highness didn’t say anything about other guests.”
“But how will he be entertained? You’re far too boring. I’ll make sure we’ve got some properly witty people around the table so you can stay quiet and look pretty.”
Lyra saw Orlan shrug, and was tempted to do the same. If there were other guests, perhaps she could fade into the background. “Who are you thinking of?”
Khalik started counting on his fingers, listing the worst and most tedious of his friends. Lyra interrupted him. “If you don’t invite any other women, I can’t attend.”
“It’s my house, I can do what I want.”
“If you ever want to get me married off and out of your house, you’ll not have the gossips in the marketplace talking about how I ‘entertained’ a room full of men. Some of your friends are married, have them bring their wives.”
Khalik pouted again. “Not the fun ones.”
Lyra muttered. “I wonder why.”
She stood. “I’m going to bed. Send Orlan to the palace tomorrow, invite your friends’ wives, and don’t forget my dress.”
He forgot her dress. Of course. She knew he would, but rather than let him perish in the flames of the Prince’s ire, so tempting, she joined him for breakfast on the morning of the dinner.
Khalik was all toothy grins and rubbing hands. Every last one of his friends had accepted his invitation, and he’d managed to convince at least three of them to bring their long-suffering wives.
Lyra sat, and accepted a plate of chopped fruit, some bread, and a cup of syrup-thick coffee from Maryam before saying. “It seems you have it all in hand. When does my dress arrive?”
Khalik looked blank, then his face morphed into panic. It was almost worth enduring his terrible table manners to watch the transformation.
He tried to recover. “It’s nearly done, should be delivered today. In fact, I’ll go and check on it myself as soon as the market opens.”
She inclined her head. “I’m sure it’ll be a work of art. Just as His Highness ordered.”
Khalik’s eyes were bugging a little by this stage. “Just so, just so, pure art. Just not too expensive, eh? It’s not like you’re going to get much wear out of it.”
Lyra hid her evil smile behind her coffee cup. “Very true. If the Prince intends to dine with you regularly, he’ll no doubt expect to see me in a new gown every time.”
Her brother was pale and sweating. He hated spending money on anyone other than himself. This was going to be a true trial for him.
“I’m sure he’ll lose interest in you soon enough, it’s not like you’ve anything interesting to talk about.”
Lyra doubted the Prince was particularly interested in her conversation but Khalik’s innocence in this area was one of the few things about him she found vaguely endearing. She made a sound that could have been agreement and focused on her food.
It was late afternoon when Khalik lumbered through the front door, waving a poorly-wrapped bundle. “Those seamstresses and tailors are bandits in shops, but I got the better of them.”
He plonked the bundle down on top of Lyra’s book. “They wanted more money for a women’s outfit than for a man’s one; but I told them. I said she’s a skinny little thing and it’s only two dresses, one of them sleeveless and you only see the front once the over-gown’s belted on. It’s less fabric than you use on my clothes, so you should expect less money.”
Which of the city’s artisans had he offended this time? Lyra looked over Khalik’s shoulder to the ever-lurking Orlan. The man had his impassive look on, never a good sign.
She gathered book and bundle and rose from her seat. “I’d better go and make ready then.”
Khalik rubbed his hands. “Yes, good idea, you’re going to need to do something with your hair, and maybe some necklaces or bangles and things to finish it off.”
She replied as she left the room. “You sold all mother’s jewellery to pay for your new horse. If I need bangles, you’d better go and buy some.”
The bangles, when they arrived, were cheap and gaudy, just like the dress. They were also sized to fit a small child, unlike the dress, which could have held her, and the cousin in the craft district, with room left over for her reading table and a tray of snacks.
It was made of a coarse-woven linen, the decorative designs on the belt, hem and open edges of the over-gown painted on, rather than embroidered. The main colour was red, but the dye was blotchy, splashing between blood and dying rose and already staining the skin on her arms. The paint used for the decoration was a garish shade of gold and Lyra wondered if the dressmaker had handed the brush to their toddler for the finishing touches. She had no idea what the design was meant to be.
She gathered the voluminous folds into the belt, wrapped it around her waist, and sighed when it dropped to sit crookedly on her hips, the two dresses bunching and sagging over the top as she moved around the room, her only jewellery the old, carved silver ring she always wore on her little finger.
Maybe this would do the trick, give the Prince a disgust of her, and he’d never return. Something inside her predicted otherwise and icy fear dropped into her stomach. What if he took offence? Thought she or Khalik were being insolent? How would he punish them? Even if she didn’t believe half the stories coming out of the palace, there were so many of them, and they were consistent. Prince Altair was nasty when displeased.
She heard voices at the door and steeled herself to join her brother in welcoming his guests.
Khalik nodded approvingly when he saw her. “Much better, nice bright colours, rich ornamentation and enough fabric for the price I paid,” he frowned. “Where are the bangles?”
“Were they bangles? I thought they were curtain rings.”
He went purple but was distracted by the entrance of two of his most useless friends. The three of them came together, with loud back-slapping and blusterous laughs.
One of them caught sight of her and laughed. “And what is that you’re wearing Pretty Lyra? Are ship’s sails the latest in ladies’ fashion now?”
She gave him her coldest stare. “I wouldn’t know, Khalik bought this for me when Prince Altair told him I needed a new outfit.”
The boor went a little pale. “Prince Altair? And Khalik bought that?”
He turned to the door. “I’m so sorry, just remembered another pressing appointment, terribly urgent, maybe next time.”
Maybe that one was a trifle more intelligent than she’d thought.