As the one friend scurried out of the door, and the other looked confused, but settled happily enough when handed wine, Khalik hissed. “They don’t know the Prince is coming, it’s a surprise, don’t spoil it.”
It wasn’t going to be her doing the spoiling but obedient to his request, she kept quiet as the other guests arrived, only responding to comments on her gown with the news that Khalik had bought it that day. The wives looked at her with a mixture of pity and contempt, telling her their husbands let them do their own shopping.
Lyra replied. “Perhaps that’s why my brother remains unwed.”
They sniggered at that and moved on to other subjects.
Khalik was making awkward excuses to delay the start of dinner by the time Prince Altair arrived.
He was all in black this time, his pale skin made paler still by the contrast. Lyra wondered if he’d ever been outside the palace in daylight.
Her brother strutted forward to greet his guest of honour, not noticing the ripple of alarm through the guests already gathered. Wives moved closer to husbands, the men hunched a little, shrinking from the prince’s presence, and darting startled, scared glances across the tables.
Lyra realised she was rubbing and twisting her ring, a nervous habit she’d overcome years before, or not, apparently. She forced her fingers to still and folded them in her lap.
Khalik waved her up. “Come on, you’re always so reluctant to greet my guests.”
Prince Altair had noticed the others in the room by then and his lip curled. “I wonder why.”
His gaze moved to Lyra as she bit her lip and stood. She saw his eyes flick over her and something like horror cross his face before he barked a laugh, harsh and cruel. “What is that?”
Khalik, the idiot, beamed. “I got it for her this morning. Much better than that old thing she was wearing, and I didn’t let the stallholder cheat me either. There’s as much fabric there as in my robes, and at the same price.”
Prince Altair withered him with a look. “You’re a fool, and were deservedly cheated.”
He flicked his fingers at Lyra. “Leave, I refuse to look on this travesty. Tomorrow, I will send a seamstress for your measurements. Your brother is going to buy you something appropriate.”
Her brother bleated. “Seamstress? Measure? I can’t afford that!”
The Prince replied. “You can afford to drape yourself in ridiculous amounts of cloth and ornamentation, but begrudge your sister one pretty dress?”
Khalik looked mulish and Prince Altair tutted and shook his head. “Very well, I will pay for your sister’s clothes and you will owe me a favour.”
Khalik beamed, her clod-brained brother actually thought it was a good offer, he nodded and bowed and rubbed his hands. “Of course, of course, I’d be delighted.”
Everyone else in the room turned apprehensive eyes to Lyra, who swallowed her fear and frustration and bowed. “You’re too kind, Your Highness, I’m not worthy.”
The Prince smirked. “We shall have to agree to disagree, lovely Lyra, now tell me, before you go, what do you wish this outfit to be?”
She frowned, confused. “Is a dress, not a dress, Your Highness?”
“It is, but do you wish for a dress that calls to mind a pink lily in the Empress’s gardens? Or a jewel in an ornate necklace? Or a dancing flame?”
He had a way with words, Lyra’s mind lit with images. She thought a moment, then said. “I would wish for a dress like the sky.”
His eyebrows rose. “Unusual. The sky has many moods, do you see storm clouds, or the merciless emptiness of the desert?”
She replied. “The sky over the sea on a calm day.”
A sky that led away from Carra, away from the suffocation of her brother’s house, away from cruel princes and stifling futures she couldn’t control; a sky that whispered of freedom.
Prince Altair was watching her, his predatory gaze seeming to bore right into her mind. She ducked her head. “If that’s acceptable. I’d be happy with anything that fits.”
He said. “I believe it a project worthy of the dressmaker I have in mind. Be at home to receive her tomorrow and I will look forward to seeing you in their creation.”
Lyra bowed, and escaped.
She made it out of the room and all but ran for her bedchamber, desperate to put the false security of a wooden door between herself and the avaricious prince.
She leaned her head against the wood as the latch dropped into place, then turned, swallowing a shriek when a shadow by the window moved, and changed into a person.
Daania drifted into the lamplight, not bothering to fully materialise. From the waist up, she was a beautiful woman, provided you saw beauty in the bared teeth of a lynx and skin of beaten gold, her gown below her belt melted into smoke and darkness.
Lyra put a hand over her racing heart and crossed the room to her bed.
Daania waited until she was a mere step away from its comfort, then said. “You’ll turn your sheets red if you lie down now.”
Looking down at herself, Lyra groaned. The dye had run everywhere, she had smudges and trickles on her hands, her upper chest looked like it was smeared with blood. Thank the moon goddess the one thing this house had was private bathing rooms adjoining the main bed chambers.
She changed her course, making for the tiny bathing pool through the door opposite her bed.
Daania followed. “You were agitating at my ring worse than the day you were given it. What have you been up to?”
Lyra replied. “Not me.”
“Fine, what’s your brother been up to and is it bad enough that I can infest his bed with scorpions?”
She stripped and piled the bleeding dresses into a corner, wondering if Maryam would be able to find any use for them. Curtains in Khalik’s room perhaps?
She found soap and lowered herself into the water. “No scorpions, they might get out and sting other people. My brother has a new friend.”
Daania raised a brow. “Who’s that stupid? No, don’t tell me, I’ll go and look for myself.”
The djini faded into smoke, then shadows rippled and moved across the ceiling.
Lyra began to scrub.
As she did, her mind wandered back to the day she’d first met Daania, and Daania had first decided she detested Khalik.
It had been Kahik’s tenth birthday, and their mother’s mother had travelled from her home at the far oasis of the Emerald Chain, deep in the Southern Desert, to attend.
Her stories held an eight-year-old Lyra spellbound, especially the one about the poor magic girl, trapped in a ring by an evil monster. She was forced to grant three wishes to whoever possessed her ring, but unless the wish was truly selfless, the granting would be twisted into something horrible.
At the end of the story, her grandmother held up a ring. Small, dulled by age, its engraving darkened and worn. “Here is the ring. I want you to take care of it, and poor Daania inside.”
Lyra held her breath as her grandmother slipped the ring onto Lyra’s thumb. “There you are, and make sure you’re alone when you twist the ring to talk to her.”
She nodded, kissed the older woman, as expected for a gift, and trotted straight to her room.
She’d closed the door, and the curtains, then twisted the ring. A shadow formed, then twisted into a woman. “You said you’d leave me in peace, what do you want now?”
Then she spotted Lyra, blinked, and transformed into a girl, about Lyra’s age. “Who are you?”
Lyra had explained, and the girl sighed. “So now you possess my ring, what do you wish for?”
“Nothing, I just wanted to talk to you, ask if I could help. Grandma was sad about you.”
The girl snorted. “She feels guilty because she broke her promise. She was going to use her third wish to set me free but ‘something awful happened’ and she had to use it for herself instead.”
Lyra was about to reply when she heard Khalik yelling and stomping and coming closer. “It’s not fair, it’s MY birthday, why should Grandma give HER something? You said all the presents today were for me.”
Daania frowned. “He sounds tedious.”
“That’s Khalik, my brother, you have to hide, or he’ll find you.”
“He’s going to find me anyway, he’s about to steal my ring from you.”
Lyra looked at the djini, then at the door, Khalik was definitely bearing down on her room. She drew a deep breath, looked Daania in the eye and said. “I wish you were free.”
The girl’s eyes widened and the tether of smoke attaching her to the ring snapped, ends flying free with a spiteful flick. Lyra’s door rattled, Daania breathed, “Thank you” – and disappeared.
Just in time, the door smashed back against the sandstone wall and Khalik charged into the room. “Give it to me.”
Lyra held the ring against her chest. “No. It’s a girl’s ring, so Grandma gave it to me.”
Khalik prised her hands open. “Boys can wear rings and it’s MY birthday.”
He pulled the ring off her and tried to shove it onto one of his fingers. It was too small. He scowled, then moved it to his littlest one, it wouldn’t go past the first joint. He shrugged, smirked at her, and twisted it around. Nothing happened.
He twisted it again, harder, digging the ring into his finger. Still nothing. He glared, threw the ring at her, and stormed out of the room, yelling about someone needing punishment for telling him lies about wish rings. At least his temper had improved over the years.
Daania may have had something to do with that. She’d been freed, but dropped by to visit occasionally, and took great delight in torturing Khalik any time he bullied Lyra, or any of the household staff.
There’d been the infestation of biting ants in his clothes, the viper sleeping in the sun in the middle of his room, the lynx hiding in the garden that attacked every time he left the house.
Slowly he learned, or maybe grew up a little. The belligerence faded and now he was merely selfish and lazy.
She rinsed and grimaced at the deepening pink cloud in the water. She was going to have to wash her hair. There’s no way it would have escaped the dye. It lay in a thick, night-dark plait down her back and while the red wouldn’t show, it would rub off on anything she lay on, or wore.
Daania whirled back into being. “I cannot believe your brother is that stupid. Even his friends are telling him making up to Altair is a bad idea. It sounds like you’re the true attraction for the clawed Prince though, Khalik is boasting fit to burst about some dress you’re getting from him. What are you going to do?”
Lyra unbraided her hair and sat to get her head under the water, leaving only her face free. “Try and bore him. Why do you call him the clawed prince?”
Daania said. “I don’t think that’s going to work, you’re too interesting. I call him clawed because he files his fingernails to points so he can draw blood from people when he grabs them, and if they’re very lucky, they won’t catch his displeasure on a day he’s dipped them in adder venom.”
Daania left Lyra with that comforting thought but promised to stop by and see how she was getting on. “I’m sure we could come to an arrangement, a trade of favours, if you need to take drastic action.”
Lyra slept poorly, chased through a nightmare maze of bloody cloth by a beast dripping yellow-green poison from its claws.