The Sack Cloth Dress

Further details filtered back to the bath house and Kore’s dining table in the following days. The riders had chased down one of the Western chain trade caravans and held them at the northern oasis long enough for a patrol, a much larger than usual patrol, to join them from The Citadel.

Lyra knew she should feel guilty that her stories were sending traders and soldiers into possible danger, but their danger was far away and the denizens of the Battlements would surely ignore new overtures after such a long time. Her danger on the other hand, loomed like the supposed junior healer hovering over her shoulder as she tried to focus on unravelling the cleansing cream recipe in her book.

She turned her head and scowled. “Is there a reason you need to breathe in my ear?”

The man jerked back. “You aren’t a proper healer therefore you must be carefully supervised.”

Lyra rolled her eyes. “Fine, since you’re the expert, I’ll get out of your way and let you finish making this lotion.”

She stepped to one side and gestured towards the table, strewn with ingredients and tools. Her supervisor’s eyes bugged, his gaze darting about the room. She wasn’t sure what he was looking for, but their interaction attracted the notice of the head pharmacist. “Is there a problem?”

Lyra replied. “Your assistant feels I’m incapable of the task Chief Healer Anissa has assigned to me but is reluctant to take it on himself.”

The chief pharmacist shook his head at the sullen-looking man. “You weren’t assigned to Lyra’s bench, her work is far too advanced for your skills. Might I suggest you return to the pot scrubbing I did assign you to.”

He met the man’s glare with one of his own. “Remember, student, that I am the master in this hall, and recall further that a healer knows more about injuries than a palace guard, for example, ever will. Any person in this room could kill a guard five different ways before said guard could even draw their sword.”

The man retreated, and in the days that followed, he and his cohort of new arrivals faded into the background. Lyra still felt their eyes on her, no matter where she was.

Khalik was oblivious. He thought the men following him were admirers, hoping to be noticed by the prince’s friend. He tried to flirt with the woman delivering the bread. He found nothing amiss with the new attendants in the men’s bath house, even though all his friends complained about them.

Lyra returned home one evening to a message from Nadira. The prince had seen and approved the sack cloth dress, would she be in to receive it the following day?

Two weeks had gone by already, Lyra’s stomach swooped, and she sat hurriedly. At Mayram’s questioning look she said. “I forgot to eat today. Please let Craftmaster Nadira know I’d be honoured to receive her tomorrow.”

Maryam relayed the message to an errand boy in the street outside and went to make dinner.

Nadira arrived in the morning, moments after the breakfast dishes had been cleared.

Khalik saw her, and the wide wooden box she carried her dresses in, and plumped back down into his seat. “Show me the outfit so I can decide whether to host a dinner to display it.”

Nadira raised her brows, but placed her box on the table and opened it.

Khalik frowned and flapped a hand in Lyra’s direction. “On her. I’m not going to hang it on the wall.”

The dressmaker closed the box again and lifted it. “Of course.”

The left the room to the sound of Khalik chortling to himself. “Hang a dress on the wall, like it’s some tapestry or painting, he he he, I must remember that one.”

Lyra closed her bedroom door behind them. “I apologise for my brother; he’s never been one to appreciate art.”

Nadira busied herself with her box. “And why would he bother to appreciate something made of sacks? His Highness thought it hilarious and all but patted me on the head for doing a good job.”

Lyra understood the undertone of fury when she saw the over gown lifted from the box. It was stunning. The sackcloth was pieced together in rough, jagged patches, then overlaid with a fine gauze in the same sandy shade, scattered across the gauze, as if blown by the wind, were embroidered phoenix feathers.

Her jaw dropped. “It’s glorious.”

She moved forward to gently lift and turn a section, so the embroidered feathers swayed and shimmered in the sunlight. “It’s like The Battlements, the jagged stones with a haze of sand blowing across, then the creatures.”

Lyra put the corner she’d lifted down again and stepped back, bowing deeply. “Craftmaster Nadira, this is a true masterpiece and unless the prince has forbidden it, I will wear it and boast of your skill to everyone I meet.”

Nadira’s pinched fury turned to pleasure. “You see The Battlements in it? They were my inspiration, but Prince Altair could not find his way past the cloth.”

She laid out the other parts of the outfit. “I couldn’t decide on the neckline for your under dress, so you have two, and the belt has two layers, this sash to pull the fabric in, then the beaten gold over the top.”

The shoes were sturdy ankle boots, hidden beneath the sand-coloured linen of the under dress. As Nadira helped Lyra shrug into the over gown she said. “I had to make the gauze layer separately. It’s attached at the edges, with a stitch or two on each feather so it doesn’t pull. If that part were to be removed, the dress would look quite nondescript, even tatty.”

Once dressed, Lyra looked at her reflection, then wrapped her plait around her head like a coronet, and wished she had earrings a little more ornate than the simple gold rings she wore every day. Nadira appeared behind her, holding up a pair of earrings to match the phoenix feather embroidery.

As she swapped them, the dressmaker said. “I’m not normally one to carry tales, but there are rumours out of the palace that two of Prince Altair’s favourites haven’t been seen in some time, and that he’s ordered the re-fitting of one of their rooms.”

Lyra put her hand to the wall and focused on breathing. She had a week before the last dress was delivered, she still had time to find a way out, but she needed to think. “Thank you for telling me.”

Nadira bowed her head, then straightened. “You’d best go and show your brother.”

Grimacing, Lyra left the room and followed the sound of Khalik’s voice to the courtyard, Nadira followed.

Sunlight shimmered over the rich golds and reds of the embroidered feathers as Lyra crossed the open space to where her brother sat.

He looked at her, head on one side, then said to Nadira. “You should be making clothes for men.”

Lyra said. “That means he likes it, in fact, I think it might be the highest compliment he could pay you.”

The dressmaker bowed her head a fraction. “Thank you, Merchant Khalik. While I prefer creating for women, I will keep your suggestion in mind.”

Khalik looked pleased and said. “I’ll host a dinner this evening, so people can admire it.”

Lyra decided not to spoil his amiable mood. “I’m meant to be attending a gathering at Merchant Kore’s house. If you can ask your guests to be a little early, I’ll be able to show them the dress and then leave so you can talk.”

He blew out his cheeks in thought, then nodded. “A good idea, yes, very good. Well done for thinking of it. No point you sitting there and trying to join in while we’re discussing important matters above your head.”

Her brother, master of subtlety, tact, and consideration. Lyra gave him a meaningless smile and returned to her room, Nadira quietly chuckling behind her.

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