The Blue Sky Dress

She looked Lyra over and gave a single nod that somehow managed to combine approval, relief, and commiseration. She set the box on the bed and opened the lid.

Folded inside was the dress. Or more accurately, a fine linen under-gown, an over-gown in silk lighter than a breeze, shoes and a belt. Lyra shed the simple robe she’d been wearing since leaving the bath and slipped into the under-dress. A simple, full-length A-line with short sleeves, it was dyed a soft, spring sky blue with a swirling band of clouds embroidered around the scooped neck and down the centre front in pearlescent white thread.

Leather-soled silk slippers in the same shade of blue were next, and then the over-gown. Fuller than the linen dress, long-sleeved, and completely open down the front, it was two shades darker than the other, and the open edges, the hem and the wide cuffs were also embellished with embroidered clouds, these ones accented with seed pearls.

Finally, the belt, a mosaic of mother-of-pearl tiles on a broad blue ribbon, the silver clasp inlaid with more mother-of-pearl. Nadira handed her a pair of drop pearl earrings, then stepped back and scanned her, head to toe and back again.

She breathed deeply. “You look lovely.”

Lyra looked at herself in the silvered glass mirror embedded in the wall of her bathing room. “This dress would make anyone look lovely. Thank you.”

Nadira’s smile was a twisted one. “I wish I could have made it for you under different circumstances. I’ll tell His Highness you’re ready. Wait for the count of fifty after I leave the room, then make your entrance.”

The dressmaker gathered her now-empty box, and left. The shadow beside the curtain coalesced into Daania. “She’s half djini. She’d have to be, to make something like that. I’m quite jealous.”

Lyra gave the djini a quelling look as she drifted forward, circling Lyra, then retreating to the bed and materialising her legs so she could recline on it.

Lyra made it to fifty, and Daania waved. “Have fun. You can tell me all about it when you get back.”

As if Daania wouldn’t be spying from every shadow and wisp of smoke from the lamps. Lyra waved without turning and walked out of the room.

She made for the light of the receiving room, conscious of the drape and flow of fabric around her. She slowed her steps, focusing on gliding smoothly across the floor, with the dress rippling around her.

When she entered the room, the crowd fell silent. She stopped just far enough from the door to be seen clearly, and bowed to Prince Altair. “Thank you, Your Highness, this is the most beautiful dress I have ever seen.”

He was in white again tonight, a deliberate foil to her clouds? He looked her over, possession in the glint of his eye. “A beautiful dress for a beautiful woman.”

He stood and came to her, holding out a hand. She placed her hand on top of his, and he led her to the seat by his side. Once she was seated, skirts billowing, then settling around her, he resumed his cushion and turned to Khalik. “This is how you frame a piece of art.”

Her brother gurgled an incoherent reply, still goggling at her.

Prince Altair looked around the table, his smug stare demanding compliments and admiration. The guests stumbled over their tongues to oblige. Finally he held up a hand and said to a young woman sitting beside an older man with slumped shoulders. “I do hope you brought your oud. Lyra wishes to dance, and she needs music.”

Lyra had no such wish but knew better than to argue. She grabbed a quick bite of bread and stood, moving to a clear space, because of course the girl had brought her instrument.

A quick check of the strings and she started to pluck out a tune, simple and rhythmic, allowing Lyra to find her beat and movement within it. His Highness allowed them to synchronise for a short time, then called out. “No more of those nursery tunes, give us music with passion, Lyra must fly.”

The oud player grimaced when the prince turned away, but plucked the strings faster, drawing a complex, rippling melody from them. Lyra stepped and twirled and wove patterns through the air with her arms and her body. Prince Altair nodded in satisfaction and resumed his meal.

They were allowed to stop when the Prince rose to leave, three hours later.

He looked over her flushed face and lifted her hand to his lips. “A lovely frame for a lovely form, but I prefer another of the sky’s moods. We will dine again in two weeks, and you will wear a dress like the night sky. And no dancing I think. You will enchant us with stories.”

Lyra bowed. “I would be honoured, Your Highness.”

He smirked and left. Lyra went to the girl with the oud, now hunched over it, weeping silently, her hands curled into themselves in pain. She knelt beside her, careful of her delicate skirts. “I have a soothing balm from the Sanctuary that is good for welts and abrasions, shall I fetch some?”

The girl nodded. “Please.”

Lyra stood and made for her bathing room, trying not to limp. She was quite sure her feet hurt as much as the other girl’s fingers, but she wouldn’t give the prince’s sycophants the satisfaction of seeing her stumble.

She returned with the balm and smoothed it over the girl’s fingertips, several of which were bleeding, then wrapped her hands in thin linen strips. “Sleep with those on if you can, and rest until you can play without pain. Trying to start again too soon will undo all the healing and it will take even longer.”

The girl nodded, the strain in her face easing and Lyra handed her the pot. “Apply this each day, there should be enough there for a week. If you need more, please come to the Sanctuary and ask for me.”

A young man with no chin gave a laugh like a donkey’s bray. “Shall we all come and get soothing balms from you, lovely Lyra?”

She looked him over and said. “I’m sure His Highness would be delighted to hear of your visits.”

He paled and stepped back, then made his falsely hearty farewells to Khalik.

Finally they were all gone, and Khalik resumed his seat with a satisfied sigh and poured himself another cup of wine.

“It was a good idea to have you dancing, I should have thought of it ages ago. You need to practice more though.”

She raised a brow. “And who would play the oud for me while I did so? You?”

He waved a hand in the air. “You seemed friendly enough with the girl tonight, invite her over and you can rehearse together. You only have two weeks before our next dinner.”

Lyra left the room. Her head was aching almost as much as her feet and she couldn’t find the energy for a retort.

She pulled off her shoes as soon as she entered her bedroom, then the belt and the two dresses. She laid them on the chest at the end of her bed, to be dealt with in the morning, slipped on an old linen shift, and allowed herself to hobble into the bathing room to soak her feet in the cool water of the bathing pool.

She sat in the dark, her feet dangling in the water, and let the tears come. A wisp of smoke coiled around her, and Daania appeared. “That was a bit silly, giving the musician your balm when your feet are such a mess.”

She sat beside Lyra and opened her hand, revealing another pot. “Such a pity your brother lost his jar.”

She could have hugged the djini but knew from experience that she’d end up falling through smoke. Lyra accepted the jar and pulled her feet out of the bathing pool to dry them. “He is terribly careless, isn’t he?”

She applied the balm, then wrapped her feet in linen strips and winced her way across the floor to bed, leaving Daania to stay or go as she pleased.

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