Searching for Stories

She woke the next morning with her feet still miserable. She struggled to walk more than a few steps. Yet another apology was sent to Anissa at the Sanctuary, and Lyra resigned herself to a day of boredom and worry.

Maryam brought her breakfast and collected the sky dress for cleaning. Dressmaker Nadira had apparently left very clear and specific instructions on how to launder and refresh the various items.

Lyra pulled out the desert healer’s book again and found a recipe for an ointment to treat chafing, mild burns and blisters. The ingredients were all items Maryam would either already have, or could easily get hold of, and the process looked simple enough, if a little messy.

She copied out the list and handed it to the housekeeper when she returned for the breakfast dishes. “I’d like to try and make our own batch of soothing balm. Could you find these, and bring several bowls, a pestle and mortar, and a brazier to my bathing room? I’d rather not clutter up your kitchen with my experiments.”

Maryam sighed, bowed, and left the room. Lyra felt a little guilty. Maryam hated anything that interfered with her set daily routine, and she’d been all but turned upside down by the dinner party, now the dinner party was done, until the next one, but her routine continued to be disrupted.

Lyra spent the day measuring, mixing, heating, and cooling. By evening she had several pots of the desert healer’s soothing balm and decided to test it. That night she treated one still-aching foot with the Sanctuary’s mixture and the other with her new concoction.

She woke to find the foot slathered in the desert potion completely healed. The other one was fine to walk on, but still a little pink and tender in places. After breakfast, she gathered the book and three of the pots, and took them to Anissa.

The chief healer examined the ointment and Lyra’s feet. “The book was given to me less than a week ago by a desert merchant, I’ll have our pharmacists look into it.”

Lyra’s hand tightened on the battered leather cover of the book. “I’d like to try some of the other remedies as well. Could I copy the recipe out for them, or would you rather I take notes on the ones I’d like to try?”

Anissa waved a hand to the scribe’s table in one corner of her office. “Copy that recipe, then any others you find worthwhile after you’ve tried them. I wish we had enough people in the still rooms to explore newly found treatments but it’s all they can do to keep up with our day-to-day needs.”

Lyra placed the three pots on the desk between them. “It might be best to try it first. I’m only one person and one foot may not have been as badly rubbed.”

The healer lifted one of the pots thoughtfully. “Of course, but copy the recipe anyway, your writing is neater than whoever wrote the book, and I may need a batch when you’re otherwise occupied.”

Lyra answered the unspoken question. “His Highness has ordered a second dress, for another dinner in a fortnight. I need to start collecting and practicing stories.”

Anissa’s lips pinched, but she said nothing, and turned her attention to the task list before her.

After writing out the recipe, Lyra spent the day assisting two senior healers caring for three would-be adventurers. They’d tried to scale the jagged cliffs of The Battlements, the mountain range marking the southern border of the desert, and failed.

The bare, craggy peaks of the Battlements erupted from the desert sand, soaring skyward and providing ideal nesting spots for phoenixes and gryphons. Both species defended their territories with vicious, swooping attacks on any wanderers foolish enough to get too close. The gryphons had the thickset, gold-furred bodies of lions, with the heads and wings of giant eagles. Phoenixes were smaller, maybe twice the size of a normal eagle, but their feathers were hot enough to scald and their claws and beaks wickedly sharp.

What the three questers had been trying for was anyone’s guess, they’d been delirious ever since a merchant caravan had delivered them to the Sanctuary two days before. The traders insisted the group had been fine, or if not fine, at least healing until just before they’d arrived in Carra. Infection had set in, hard and fast, a week after the confrontation with the creatures, and the cuts had to be re-opened.

One of the healers handed Lyra a bowl filled with a pungent, green paste. “Apply this poultice as best you can to the woman’s legs and arms, then wrap them.”

As she worked, Lyra listened to the discussion between the two healers.

The older one, a whipcord man with the dark skin and hair of the people of the far south-east of the Sun Empire, was applying the same paste to the chest of one of the male adventurers. “What is it about those ifrit-cursed rocks that draws idiots to them like flies to bad meat?”

The younger healer, a woman with the accent of the Carran streets, replied. “Wealth, fame, the challenge? Who knows? All I can say is they’re lucky the desert-dwellers see phoenix feathers as unlucky, or they’d have less than nothing to show for their recklessness.”

Lyra looked up at that, and the healer opened the door to an alcove carved into the wall of the room. Inside was a tall clay pot holding a single feather. It was as long as her forearm, from inside elbow to wrist, and looked to be made of five shades of gold, shimmering through sunrise-tinted white to deep amber.

The southern man shook his head. “I’ve no doubt some noble with more gold than thought will hand over a tidy sum for it, but I’d never say it was worth it. These three will be carrying the price of that trinket for the rest of their lives.”

He looked down at the man he was treating. “However long that may be.”

Lyra finished with her patient and made her way to the Sanctuary’s library, asking the archivist on duty for any information they held the Battlements creatures.

There was plenty, mostly accounts of injuries and treatments, all too often unsuccessful. It seemed the claws of both gryphons and phoenixes delivered some kind of toxin when they opened the skin of their victims.

The sun was still above the horizon – just – when she got home. She had just enough time to bathe and change before dinner and much-needed conversation with her small circle of friends.

She scrubbed away the day’s work and slipped into fresh clothes, this time a loose pair of trousers and slim tunic top in a shade of lavendar her mother had loved.

Snatching up a wide, soft wrap against the coming chill of the night, Lyra made for the front door. Khalik caught her as she eased it open. “Where are you going? Why aren’t you in your new dress? You’re supposed to be coming with me tonight. Everyone wants to look at you.”

She threw her answer over her shoulder, focused on getting away. “If you wanted my company tonight, you should have had the courtesy to ask earlier. I’m busy.”

Leaving him spluttering, she shut the door behind her and walked three short blocks to the wide, welcoming home of Merchant Kore.

Kore was a native of the Scattered Isles, and ran the Sun Empire branch of her family’s sprawling trade consortium with typical Islander shrewdness and her own brand of charm. Her evening gatherings were golden lights in Lyra’s life, full of laughter, intelligent conversation and solid advice when needed.

There were ten or so people already there when she arrived, and she paused at the awkward silence her entry created.

Kore tutted at her other guests and came forward to greet her, arms wide. “I was worried you wouldn’t make it. Word has it your brother was planning on parading you through about five different parties this evening.”

Lyra’s answering smile was tight. “He probably was, unfortunately, he forgot to mention his plans to me.”

She let herself be enfolded in a gauzy pink hug, drawing on the comfort and familiarity it offered. Kore pulled back and looked her over. “Now come and sit, relax, and tell us what you will of your recent adventures.”

She was not going to cry. Lyra’s smile wobbled a little, but she conquered the impulse and joined the group around the low tables with what she hoped was her usual poise.

It helped to find she was sitting beside Kore’s neighbours, Jakob and Timon, a delightful couple whose parents half-heartedly pretended to believe they were merely sharing a home and whole-heartedly supported their sons’ happiness.

An eager young woman from across the table opened the conversation. “I heard your dress was made by Master Crafter Nadira, what’s she like?”

Trust Kore’s guests to find interest in something other than the usual, Lyra described the dressmaker and the dress, happy to ignore the reasons for it.

Someone said. “A truly once in a lifetime dress.”

Lyra’s smile dropped and she looked down at her plate of nibbled snacks. “She’s making me another.”

Silence fell a second time and she forced a smile. “This one is to be the night sky, I’m told, and I will need to find stories to tell while I’m wearing it.”

Kore looked thoughtful. “Not the usual ones of your Sun and Moon and first Rulers then, unless you can add something unexpected.”

The guests hummed agreement, then began discussing lesser-known legends from across the empire, tales of the blind Moon Goddess and her faithful hounds, of the Sun God’s wife and children, of the djinn and ifrits of the desert.

Lyra had to call for ink and paper to be able to record them. During a pause, she said. “I’d like to tell some stories of The Battlements if you have any.”

Under the cover of the ensuing discussion, Jakob leaned forward. “If you’re agreeable, I’ll come by the Sanctuary tomorrow, introduce you to someone I think will have a tale for you.”

She nodded, and thanked him, then turned back to her notes as ideas and arguments turned into story sketches she could grow and embellish in the following days.

It was late when one of Kore’s house staff walked her home, swinging a heavy brass lantern at suspicious shadows. She dropped her pile of papers on the storage chest and tumbled into bed.

Khalik caught her at breakfast. “Make sure you’re ready this time, I have a lot of people who want to see you.”

Lyra looked up from her story notes. “And I have tales to prepare for the prince.”

Khalik frowned. “Just tell the usual ones, he’s not going to listen. Although you could add in some of Grandmother’s little games about that girl in your ring that doesn’t exist.”

“And if he does listen? And gets bored and annoyed?”

That made him pause. Eventually he huffed and waved a hand. “Very well, but you’re going to upset my friends.”

Lyra snorted. “I cannot begin to tell you how little I care. Perhaps you should remind them His Highness doesn’t take kindly to people taking too much interest in his activities.”

Khalik looked blank, but not all his friends were as oblivious. She said. “Just repeat that, and see what they say.”

“But some of them are only inviting me because of you.”

Who knew a grown man could whine like a six-year-old?

She sighed. “Then they’re not your friends, they just want to use you for your connection to the prince.”

That made him preen, and he marched out of the room with his nose in the air. “They’ll regret trying to fool me, His Highness will hear about this.”

That was unlikely to end well for anyone, other than Prince Altair. Lyra finished eating, then gathered notes and the healer’s book, and made her way to the Sanctuary.

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