Once the dressmaker left, and Lyra had changed into a less ornate tunic and trousers, she spent the day puzzling over the stained and smudged pages of the desert healing book. The front pages were age-marked and spotted with mysterious stains but still perfectly legible. The further she read, the larger and darker the stains, and the messier the writing. The sanctuary pharmacists would have given up by now, happy with the discoveries of the poultice and the soothing balm, but Lyra couldn’t shake a nagging feeling that there was more to be found, and it was important.
As the sun set, she tucked the book into her storage chest, beside the day and night dresses, and went to bathe and change.
By the time she was ready, she could hear the blend of many voices in the receiving room, and Khalik had been by to knock on her door twice.
She walked through the door and found the place fuller than the central market square on a festival day, with Khalik beaming in the middle of the crowd.
He waved a hand, rings glinting from every finger. “And here she is, just look at this dress. Made of sack cloth you know, and those are phoenix feathers on it, Prince Altair had one with him the last time we dined and made sure to show me.”
Lyra smiled and stood like a temple statue, gawked at and discussed, but not spoken to. As interest began to fade, she edged towards the door.
A man, a stranger, noticed her movement. “You can’t go yet, we’ve only admired you from afar. Come and sit, so we can become better acquainted,” he patted the cushion next to him.
A shocked silence rippled out from him, then one of Khalik’s friends, the one who’d found another appointment on the night of the ugly red dress, leaned forward and hissed. “Prince Altair had it made for her, and he doesn’t like competition.”
The man looked confused, he had to be newly arrived in Carra. Lyra left the crowd explaining matters to him and made her way to Kore’s party.
Curiosity, uncertainty and awe chased across the faces of the guests there as well, but at least they spoke to her, asking about Nadira, and the other dresses. They didn’t ask about the prince.
That was what scared her, the void in the conversation, the furrowed brows as eyes slid over the phoenix feathers. It made her wonder, did the prince decree the decoration? He’d been seen at more places than her brother’s dinner with the real feather shimmering on his chest. To have it echoed in the silk threads adorning her dress felt like a statement of possession she’d been too blinkered to notice until now.
She couldn’t be the first to leave, to run away, she had to smile and laugh and enjoy the evening, and at some points she did. When the conversation was of matters away from Carra and she could forget what she was wearing. Then she’d move, and catch the light, or someone would look away, and she’d remember.
Finally the guests began to rise from their seats and make their farewells, she counted five, then stood as well, making her way to Kore.
“Thank you for a lovely evening, but I have to be up early tomorrow. I want to make a trip to the docks.”
It was the closest she could come in this setting. She needed a place on a ship, one that was leaving Carra in the next few days, and going far, far away.
Kore smiled and embraced her, but her eyes were worried. “Just make sure you don’t trip over the palace guards when you’re there, the place is crawling with them.”
Fool that she was, she should have run weeks ago. After the first dress, or even before.
She bit her lip on a sob, it was hopeless, and shook herself into a smile as bright as false gold. “How tedious, they never know how to behave around cargo and rigging. Maybe I’ll go straight to The Sanctuary instead.”
Kore’s response was another hug, and small rueful smile. Lyra knew she would help if she could, but her hands were tied, her home and business was watched as closely as Lyra’s own.
She shed the beautiful, horrible dress as soon as she got home, throwing it across her bed. Moonlight found the feathers, turning the fire-coloured threads cold and hard. She paced her room, worrying at the ring on her finger. What was she to do? What would happen if he took her to the palace? Would it be so bad? Could she make a life there? What had happened to the girls who’d disappeared?
Daania wafted out of the bathing room, crossing to the bed and stroking one embroidered feather with an inquisitive finger. “There’s real gold in that thread, pity it’s not enough to melt down and sell.”
Lyra continued to prowl the perimeters of the space. “What am I going to do?”
Daania materialised fully, and sat on the bed, arms propped behind her. “From the sounds of things, you’re going to let yourself be dressed up in yet another glorious gown and spend the rest of your life in the palace.”
“Will that be bad? Maybe I’m worrying over nothing.”
The djini snorted. “You’re not, I’ve been in there. It’ll be bad.”
Lyra swallowed hard and waited.
Daania went on. “That prince, he loves to inflict pain. It brings him joy.”
“How do you know?”
The djini poked at the dress again. “I was curious, so I went to look.”
“How did you get past the guard djinn?”
That made Daania laugh. “Whoever set their service was an idiot. They’re sworn to protect the palace, not the people in it. I wandered by and, once I promised not to touch anything, they waved me straight through. One of them even offered a proper guided tour. He was rather handsome; I may have to wander by again.”
Her smile vanished as she went on. “But I won’t be going by the quarters of the clawed prince again. The memories of screams are embedded in the walls, there is agony in every alcove and in the rooms of his favourites, women and men crouch in corners, relieved at their respite and terrified of it ending.
Lyra wanted to crouch in a corner as well. She wanted to hide in a shadow so deep she would never be found.
She wrapped her arms around her chest and kept pacing. “What am I going to do? I can’t go to the desert; he found the girl who tried it before. I can’t get to any of the merchant ships with his guards swarming the docks. And the first place he’ll look if I’m not here when he comes is The Sanctuary.”
Daania tilted her head to one side. “And the first person he’ll blame is your brother. What do you think the prince will do to him? Will he squeal like a pig when he’s beaten?”
Khalik. He was a selfish buffoon with the manners of a warthog, but she couldn’t leave him to be whipped, or worse.
“I’ll have to escape once I’m in the palace. You said the djinn only guard the building.”
Daania rolled her eyes. “And once you’re in the prince’s quarters, you’ll be palace property. They don’t like thieves, even if you’re trying to steal yourself.”
Lyra clenched her arms tighter. “I have to get out, get away. Is there anywhere he won’t find me?”
The djini leaned forward, elbow on knee, chin on fist. “I could help. In return for a favour.”
Every warning she’d ever heard blared inside her mind. Never bargain with djinn-folk. They twisted words and slipped through loopholes and demanded impossible payments. She would be worse off than ever.
Still, she asked. “How? And what sort of favour?”
Daania shrugged. “Tell me what you want, be clear and specific, and I’ll decide what it’s worth.”
Lyra’s confusion must have shown as the golden-skinned woman went on. “It will cost me more in power and effort to fly you across the Shifting Sea on the back of a gryphon than it will to hide you in a dark corner for three hours. The favour would be tallied accordingly.”
“And what kind of thing would you ask as a favour?”
Daania’s smirk was not reassuring. “A gift given, or a maybe service performed. Nothing that’s truly impossible, or too permanently damaging, nothing you can’t provide.”
Lyra shuddered and replied. “Thank you, I’ll continue to look for my own way out.”
The djini shrugged. “Suit yourself, I’ll be watching.”