The Dressmaker

The following morning, she sent a message to the Sanctuary, with her apologies, she couldn’t assist that day.

After consulting with Maryam, the red dress, now more blotched than ever, was removed, never to be discussed again. She had a feeling the housekeeper had sent it to the guild of dyers with a polite note, and wondered how those proud crafters would react.

The prince’s dressmaker arrived mid-afternoon, waiting only for the sun to calm its midday fury before carrying out His Highness’s orders.

She looked to be a woman as fond of food as Khalik, but that was where any resemblance ended. Craftmaster Nadira was intelligent, elegant, reserved, and graceful. Lyra presumed her to be someone who spoke little but saw much. She worked quickly and quietly, and Khalik who’d wandered in to give advice, had been sent packing with a look.

She made a final set of notes, folded her paper away, and gave Lyra a long, steady look. “Are you sure this is the path you wish to take?”

Lyra waved her hand towards the door to where her brother could be heard, laughing loudly with someone in the receiving room. “The path was imposed on me by someone else. I hope it will lead to nothing.”

The dressmaker’s silence spoke volumes. Finally, she said. “Your request is one that will take some time to fulfil. His Highness has learned not to rush my work, but I cannot give it other than my full attention, and that of all my best assistants. You have two weeks before it will be ready.”

She left, and Khalik received a note that evening from the Prince’s scribe. His Highness would be dining with them in a fortnight and would bring the dressmaker with him to ensure Lyra’s dress didn’t suffer any accidents. He enclosed a list of acceptable guests.

The next day, Lyra returned to the Sanctuary, and found that news from the city had reached even its quiet rooms and cool corridors.

The Sanctuary was the third of the trio of great buildings forming the eastern edge of Carra, where the Everflow River entered the city. The Royal Palace was the nearest to the dawn, the only building on the eastern bank of the river, and the tallest, a soaring statement of the crown’s power over all others, including (and especially) the Sun Temple.

The Temple’s builders may have gnashed their teeth at the morning shadow cast on the Sun’s house of worship by the palace, but once the Eye of the Sun alighted on their work, it caught all other eyes as well. Every wall and grandiose pillar was decorated with mosaics of coloured tile and semi-precious stones. It sat between the great houses of the city’s high and wealthy and the river, interceding between the people and their god, and incidentally their Empress as well. The western anchor of the bridge to the palace sat on Temple grounds.

The Sanctuary sat on the upriver side of the Temple, a sprawling complex of low stone buildings, bordering courtyards filled with plants and birdsong. It was a place of scholarship, healing, and calm.

It had been built by an Emperor obsessed with balance. The Palace and the Temple balanced the civic and spiritual rule of the people, while the Sanctuary was created to balance the Citadel – the base and commanding centre of the Empire’s army. It sat on the Western side of Carra, frowning over the harbour, with the Western Market, and the northern end of the Desert Road, at its door.

Lyra walked the Sanctuary’s shaded paths in search of the chief healer, trying to ignore the hissing rise of whispers behind her as she passed little clusters of the people who worked and studied there.

She found Anissa, the Chief Healer, in her office, frowning over a letter.

She looked up at her knock and waved Lyra in. Her expression said she’d heard the news and wasn’t happy, but she simply ran through the list of patients she wished her to attend to – where they were and what help was needed – then sent her off again.

The other healers, and her assigned patients, weren’t so restrained. The worst was a young healer, sent from one of the oasis families to learn city healing and share the ways and remedies of the desert. She hadn’t been in Carra long enough to hear the stories, and sighed over the romance of it all, how Lyra would become a princess and live happily ever after.

She stopped after the senior healer they were assisting took them to a darkened room, where a young man lay, pale, listless, his breathing laboured and his back a bloody mess of crisscrossed welts and gouges.

The senior healer let them look, then took them outside. “That is what happens when a stable hand doesn’t bring the prince’s horse fast enough. Do you still think Lyra fortunate?”

The desert girl stepped back, her hands to her mouth. She looked between her teacher and Lyra, who was trying to stay calm. “But surely that was the stablemaster. A prince would never…”

Lyra gave a harsh laugh. “That prince would absolutely. Go and ask your city friends for stories. You’ll not find a good one among them, and there are many.”

The young woman looked like she wanted to cry. “What are you going to do? You should run away, hide in the desert, my family would help you.”

The older healer looked at Lyra but said nothing; they both knew of the girl who’d run, and how the chase had ended in blood and fire.

Lyra scowled down her tears and said. “It’s not worth the risk, though it’s kind of you to offer. But don’t worry, he’s not one to settle long on any interest. Someone will show him a new automata from Sundaria, or ask for his sponsorship of an expedition for phoenix feathers and gryphon claws, and I’ll be forgotten.”

With that, she bowed to the pair, wished them a good afternoon, and moved to her next patient.

After a day or two, the gossip settled, and Lyra let herself be lulled into a pretence of normalcy, a simple daily round of the Sanctuary, home-related responsibilities, and coffee with friends, who carefully avoided discussing the approaching dinner.

The day before the one appointed by the prince, Khalik received a second note. The dress was all but ready, and Lyra should spend the following day doing the things women do when they’re preparing for a special occasion.

Since the letter accompanied a box with her name on it, filled with scented soap, body oil, hair oil and cosmetics, along with instructions on how to dress her hair, Lyra sighed, sent another note of apology to Chief Healer Anissa, and resigned herself to a day of indulgence and boredom – there was only so much time you could spend in a bath.

Anissa sent a book of old desert remedies by way of reply, giving Lyra something to fill the empty hours and allowing a measure of escape in the process.

All too soon, the sun set, and the city cooled. The street outside the house, normally full of chatter and movement at this time, was as silent as it had been at midday.

Lyra tucked the book away and checked her appearance. She’d used everything in the prince’s box, she was sure he’d know if she hadn’t, and followed the directions for plaiting and pinning her waist-length hair.

It felt strange having her hair up, in the style of northern women, and the back of her neck felt bare and vulnerable.

She paced the room as voices moved from the front door, into the receiving room, Khalik’s nervous laugh braying over them all. Tonight’s guests had been decreed by Prince Altair and Lyra knew nothing about them. When Khalik had read the list two weeks before, he’d mumbled something about rich merchants and minor nobles, and made an appointment with his tailor.

Finally, long after all the voices had settled in the receiving room, their tones strained and tense, Prince Altair arrived. Lyra heard Khalik bustle out to greet him, and a minute later, the dressmaker appeared at her door, bearing wide, shallow wooden box, carved with flowers and birds.

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