Sack Cloth and Soldiers

Lyra found herself the focus of the prince’s attention again. He looked her over. “I prefer this dress to the last, but it’s still not quite right. I feel I must properly test my dressmaker’s mettle.”

She clenched her teeth in a too-bright smile. “You’re going to ask her to create a court dress out of old sacks?”

He laughed. “For you, lovely Lyra, I will do just that, but she must also meld the night and day. I wish to see you in a dress like the dawn.”

The other guests gasped and murmured, and Lyra put her hand to her throat, and the points of the star-strung necklace. “Your Highness’s generosity is overwhelming.”

He smirked. “Don’t worry, I’m sure your brother will have no difficulty in fulfilling his debt, when I decide on the favour I require.”

Khalik puffed out like a prideful frog, ready to loose a bellyful of croaks. Prince Altair cut them off by taking his leave, the other guests scurrying in his footsteps.

Lyra rose, thanked Maryam for the drink, and went to bed.

She probably could have gone to The Sanctuary the following day, but she was too distracted and unsettled. She would have achieved nothing.

Khalik remained in his rooms, unwell, Orlan said. Daania smirked from a shadow in the corner, then disappeared as Maryam entered. “The dressmaker’s here.”

Lyra entered the reception room, where Nadira was waiting. The dressmaker raised her brows. “Sack cloth?”

“It was meant to be a small joke, I never thought he’d listen.”

Nadira replied. “But he has, and now I’m commissioned for two dresses, which for you is a good thing, since it will take me longer, but also a bad thing, as your brother’s debt grows. A dress of sack cloth will take time and skill, neither of which are cheap.”

Lyra pinched the bridge of her nose. “Khalik will be paying in the form of a favour.”

“Ah.” The wordless exclamation held a world of comprehension, and the dressmaker moved to open her work box. “You believe His Highness will be demanding you as the payment.”

“Yes. And my brother will happily oblige.”

Nadira pulled several lengths of sack cloth from the box and held them up against Lyra, one after the other. “Does your brother care so little then?”

Lyra sighed. “Khalik is the one person in the whole of Carra, the whole of the Sun Empire, who doesn’t understand what the prince is. The stories? He doesn’t hear them. The warnings? They go straight over his head. And when evidence is put right in front of him? He closes his eyes.”

She turned obediently as the dressmaker draped and pinned sections of harsh, scratching jute and flax into the semblance of a robe. “My brother believes His Highness is the most benevolent of men and will be delighted to think of me as his companion. He’ll send me off in expectation of a wedding, and boast to his friends of his sister, the future princess.”

Nadira did not reply but focused on pinning. Finally, she stood back. “This gives me a shape to start. You said you wished this to be a court dress?”

Lyra grimaced. “I did.”

The dressmaker carefully eased the beginnings of the gown from Lyra’s shoulders and lay it in the work box. “It seems sensible, when working with uncooperative fabric, to keep the garment itself as plain as possible, and apply embellished borders later.”

She frowned at the dun-coloured mound of fabric. “And further, ensure that decoration can be easily removed. There’s no point wasting gold thread on fraying sacks.”

She added her pins to the box and said. “This dress will be ready in two weeks. His Highness is not interested in seeing it on you, so I will present it to him, then deliver it. The dawn dress will be done in three weeks.”

Lyra mused. “And then another dinner. I wonder who he’ll tell Khalik to invite this time.”

Nadira paused in her tidying. “I was given the impression this would be the last dress ordered for you. However he decides to entertain himself this time, you may expect him to call in your brother’s favour then, or very soon afterwards.”

Lyra swallowed, hard. She had three weeks. Nadria’s remarks on the delivery and adornment of the sack cloth dress took on new levels of meaning. She could use it to escape the house, hide among the scrubbers of The Sanctuary until Altair’s attention was caught by something new.

She put back her shoulders. “Thank you. It’s much more pleasant to be prepared for such things.”

The dressmaker closed her box and lifted it from the table it had been resting on. “Do keep in mind, the prince likes to be prepared as well.”

The following day, Lyra discovered what Nadira had been talking about. She arrived at The Sanctuary to find a member of the palace guard in Anissa’s office. The man looked her up and down and demanded her name.

When she told him, he grunted, and left the office. Anissa rubbed her forehead. “He says he’s here on the orders of Prince Altair but won’t say what those orders are.”

Lyra grimaced, surely it was a coincidence. By the end of the week, she knew it was not. New people joined the staff of the still room and the library. People who moved awkwardly in healers’ robes and didn’t know the first thing about potions or records.

If she ran, The Sanctuary would be the first place they’d look, and they’d find her within minutes.

The boy who delivered bread to Maryam’s kitchen each morning disappeared; his place taken by a dour woman whose hand constantly searched for something at her hip.

Some of the bath house attendants changed, the new ones slow to respond and clumsy in their duties.

When other members of her regular bathing group made loud, pointed comments about the incompetence of the new attendants at a bath house gathering, Kore turned heads by noting an uncanny resemblance of a number of them to a set of loiterers who’d recently adopted the street outside her compound as a meeting area.

Lyra focused on keeping her face calm, her breathing even. Those inept attendants were scowling from the sides of the room, and she wanted no reports of her fear filtering back to the prince.

Kore selected a chilled grape from the dish beside her and examined it while casually asking. “Does anyone know why the palace sent fast riders out to the Emerald Chain three days ago?”

A woman lounging nearby with her own friends glanced over. She looked familiar. Was she one of the dinner guests?

The woman said. “Prince Altair heard an old story of exchanges of goods with The Battlements, he decided to investigate.”

Her gaze slid to Lyra, paused, then passed on as she turned back to her conversation.

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