The evening before the second dinner party, as Khalik was checking the guest list and issuing conflicting orders to Maryam and Orlan, the half-expected box of soaps, oils, cosmetics, and instructions arrived.
Lyra had already told Anissa and the head pharmacist she would be unavailable for two days. They had lowered their eyes and said nothing.
As before, she spent the day bathing, and reading, and making notes on the desert healer’s more puzzling entries.
The instructions this time were to leave her hair loose, with just the sides pulled back into a small knot at the back of her head. It swung behind her, a warm curtain flowing down her spine, and she hoped the cool north breeze would continue to blow.
Again, she waited in her room as Khalik greeted his guests, a different group from the last time, Orlan said. The last group had been local merchants and minor nobles. This time the Prince’s list was made up of foreign traders and government officials. Lyra wondered what they made of her brother, braying delightedly in their midst.
Another voice in the reception hall, and then a knock on her door. Dressmaker Nadira glided through on Lyra’s call, and gently laid her carved box on the bed.
She handed Lyra a dove grey dress with a v-shaped neckline, picked out in black embroidered swirls. The shoes this time were black, with silver stars adorning the toes. The over-gown was also black, a sinuous silk edged with velvet so dark it seemed to draw light into its depths.
The bottom third of the gown was scattered with crystals, winking in the lamplight like stars above the desert and the velvet border held scraps of mirror, the sharp edges of the glass smoothed, and covered with a narrow frame of black embroidery thread. The belt was a series of linked silver tiles, embossed with stars.
Nadira added a comb adorned with silver and crystal stars to the knot in Lyra’s hair, then fastened on a necklace; a chain of silver stars, with a larger star suspended from the middle.
She stepped back and shook her head. “I cannot do other than my best, and I’m sorry child, but his fascination with you is going to grow when you appear before him like this.”
Lyra turned to look in the mirror of her bathing room and put her hand to her neck, the bite of the stars’ points holding her from tears. She looked mysterious and beautiful; and since, like Nadira, she could not do other than her best, her stories would only add to the effect.
The dressmaker collected her box and made for the door. “Wait for the count of thirty this time. Then walk slowly, this dress is not meant for dancing.”
Dinner that evening had been moved to the courtyard, no doubt on the orders of Prince Altair. Two lamps on high stands flanked the doorway through which she entered, she paused in their light and conversation died.
The prince stood and strolled to her side, he was in red tonight, and she was curiously unsurprised to see a phoenix feather adorning the left breast of his coat. She rested her hand on his and let him lead her to the dining area.
As she sat, Maryam quietly placed a cup of cooled fruit juice in front of her, then added a large jug to one side. Lyra blessed the practical attentiveness of the housekeeper. She would need all of it to make it through a full dinner of stories, if that was what the prince demanded.
As if prompted by Maryam’s quiet retreat, Prince Altair turned to her. “The night is a time for tales of mystery and wonder. I do hope, Fair Lady Night, you have some suitable stories for us.”
Lyra bowed her head and took a sip of the juice.
Khalik, no doubt trying to be helpful, said. “Tell him the story of your ring.”
Daania was going to be furious, Lyra hoped it would be with her brother, rather than her. If she protested, it would only provoke the prince’s interest, so she shrugged and looked a little disappointed. “If you say so.”
Prince Altair raised his brows. “You have a ring worthy of a tale?”
Lyra lifted her hand to display the band on her smallest finger. “A gift from my grandmother when I was a child, given with the additional gift of a story, made to amuse the child I was.”
It was so tempting to conclude the story with Khalik’s unsuccessful attempt to summon the djini, but Lyra held up her hand at the end, and twisted and rubbed the ring, then said. “And so, you see, it was nothing but a fancy.”
The prince took hold of her hand, twisting it so the lamplight caught on the carvings of the ring. He didn’t quite hurt her.
He let her go and said. “As you say, a story for a child. I hope your next tale will be a little more interesting.”
And so she told him Emir’s tale of the creatures of the battlements and the trading circle, mixed and muddled with overlapping tales from half the traders in Carra, or so it felt. She didn’t think he was paying attention as he drank, and ate, and made conversation with others around the tables.
At the end though, his eyes turned to her, sharp, hard, and focused. “And is this true?”
She swallowed, her throat dry. “I don’t know. It seemed so strange when I first heard about it that I began asking whenever I came across a storyteller. All the traders travelling the western side of the Emerald Chain had such stories, but none of the eastward travellers have anything like it. It’s either a well-known fantasy, but only among the sunset-side desert groups, or there is some element of truth.”
Prince Altair’s arrowed gaze went to a man in the ornate robes of a government official across the table. “Send a group to investigate. Take some sacks of…what did you say they traded?”
Lyra managed to choke down the juice she’d just drank. “Wool, and silk, and fruits from the oases.”
The man’s face remained carefully smooth as he bowed his head. “I’ll send to the Citadel in the morning and have them extend their patrol.”
The prince’s brow furrowed, just a little. “No, you will send a trade caravan. They can have guards if you want, but they must re-start this exchange with the creatures. And include someone small enough to fit in a sack. I want to know where they go.”
Khalik looked confused. “How will you know where they go if they don’t come back?”
Prince Altair snarled, then turned to Lyra with a forced smile. “And how would the Fair Lady Night answer such a question?”
Lyra glanced around the courtyard, frantically searching for inspiration. A pair of birds tucked under the eaves sparked an idea. “Homing pigeons, Your Highness?”
His laugh was ugly. “If they make it past the predators.”
His attention returned to the seemingly untroubled official. “Find out where they go, and what they have to trade. And have your soldiers bring me back a phoenix or two,” he stroked a finger up the bright feather on his chest, “their plumage makes good pens.”
The man bowed his head again. “Of course, Your Highness.”