Jemin approached the gate without hesitation. After a quick exchange of salutes, he explained he had orders to settle the king’s guests here and then produced a letter to prove it. I raised a brow. Apparently, he’d come quite prepared for my father’s verdict. The guards opened the gates and we entered the king’s orchard estate.

As we approached the massive front door to the house, a servant boy ran down the steps to take the horses. Behind him a short man dressed in the deep blue of Dalyn, stepped forward and bowed. “Welcome to Sinensis, the King’s orchard,” he said. “I am Tangel, I am the caretaker here.”

Jemin showed the caretaker the letter, “The Guard rescued these merchants from brigands on the road, the king desires they stay here until they recover from their wounds.”

Tangel looked at the letter and then turned to us. “You are welcome in the King’s house.” He was middle aged, with thinning hair that had once been darker. His face was more weather beaten than was typical for house staff, I wondered if he had started in the orchards, or worked there still in off season. “Follow me, I will show you to your rooms.”

My brothers and Jemin helped my parents off the horses, then we all followed Tangel through the enormous double doors. The entryway was vaulted and paved with beautiful mosaic patterns. Just beyond was a huge room with an even higher ceiling and twin sweeping grand staircases. Tangel led us up the left-hand staircase and down a long hall. He installed our parents in a spacious room, and the doctor stayed behind with them to make sure our father was recovering from our journey. Nadine was next, which prompted Jemin to tell Tangel that Namal and I would not be staying the night here, but needed fresh clothes and a carriage as the king desired our company. Tangel inclined his head and showed me to the adjoining suite’s washroom with a promise that a maid would be along shortly to draw a bath.

The men proceeded down the hall, and I wandered around the suite. Thick rugs covered wood floors and a huge bed dominated one wall. There were a few other pieces of furniture around to make the room quite comfortable. The washroom was modest compared to the rest of the house, but there was a fireplace mere feet from the tub and my heart leapt in anticipation of a real, warm bath. A knock sounded at the door.

“Come in.”

The door opened and a middle-aged woman entered carrying an armload of towels. “Good afternoon, miss,” she proceeded directly to the washroom, deposited her load of towels on a little table then turned to me. “My name is Caraca, I’ll have a bath all ready for you in just a few moments.” Her voice trailed off a little as she took in my rags and dirt. Her face filled with compassion. “Here’s a basket for you to put your clothes in.” She pulled a round basket out from under the table. “You’ll have to forgive us, we weren’t expecting anyone today.  But we’ll have you all ready to meet the king, don’t you worry.” She produced a long white dressing gown and laid it out on top of the towels. “There you go, you sweet thing.”

I nodded, “Thank you,” and was suddenly aware that meeting the king would be a much bigger deal to a merchant’s daughter than it was to me. I should probably act nervous.

“You go ahead and get ready, we’ll have the water all set in just a few minutes.” Caraca gave a little curtsey and left again.

I began to peel off my layers. It was just as well do this without Caraca to watch—or help. What would she think of my leather layers from Ironsides, or my knives? I shed my ragged vest and dress, and wiggled out of the leather jerkin and breeches hidden beneath. I slipped into the white dressing gown and reveled in its softness. I would like staying in Dalyn. Rolling Shiharr and Azzad into the jerkin and breeches, I shoved the bundle down into my pack. My bracers were already in there, with some underclothes and food stuffs, but that was all. The rest of my spare clothing had gone to dressing Mother and Nadine for the past few days.

When I returned to the washroom the tub was nearly full and steam curled off the surface of the water. I trailed my fingers in the water and found it delightfully warm. I heard the bedroom door open and Caraca appeared, this time carrying a tray of little bottles.

“Isn’t it a lovely invention?” she smiled, her cheeks round as biscuits.

Oh, right. If we were poor merchants—as our clothes certainly suggested—then I might not have seen plumbing before.

“One of the old king’s architects came up with it—the king was skeptical so he had it installed in a country home first, to see if it really worked.”

“It’s brilliant,” I replied. The king’s architect was a fantastic liar: The nymphs had had plumbing for centuries under Daisen Bay.

Caraca tossed salts and oils into the bath, “This is the only kingdom that has them, so far as I know. Get in, now, child.”

I balked as fear shot through me like a nightmare. If she helped me bathe, she would know what I was. Some of our feats these last days could only have been achieved by nymphs. “Please,” I stammered, “I am accustomed to bathing alone.”

“No need for that, dear,” said Caraca kindly.

“Please,” I said again, eyes wide in desperation. “I would be so much more comfortable.”

Caraca relented, sympathy oozed from her like an overfull jar of honey as she stepped out of the washroom and closed the door behind her.

I waited a moment as the room filled with sweet smelling steam, then shed the robe and slipped into the divine water. I hadn’t had a bath like this since leaving my grandfather’s palace. I retrieved soap from the tray Caraca had left behind and began to scrub. Heavens, I had missed warm baths. The blue patterning on my body came vivid in the water. Graceful stripes trailed down my arms and legs and swirled over my shoulders and hips in interlocking arcs, and reached sweeping tendrils up and down my torso. My beautiful camouflage. I could have lingered in the bath tub forever, but didn’t want Caraca to come check on me. So I rushed through my scrubbing and rinsing and climbed out to towel myself dry and don at least the underclothes before calling Caraca. I used every single towel Caraca had brought in an effort to fade my stripes faster. Finally, I judged they were faint enough to only be noticed by someone looking very closely, and opened the washroom door.

Caraca was waiting, and soon I was standing in front of a mirror while she fussed with the dark green travel dress she’d picked for me. “The palace staff will have a proper ball gown for when you’ll be presented to the king, we haven’t got time to pull one together for you here. Jemin is insistent that you be back for the evening festivities.” She gave the bodice a final brush and stepped back admiringly. “Lovely,” she announced.

I had been watching in the full-length mirror, and I smiled. Caraca had braided my hair into a crown. The travelling dress, with its long and split skirt and trim bodice and matching coat, was beautiful. There was black embroidery covering the bodice and dripping down the skirt in flattering lines. I liked the newer fashion of frothy cuffs peeking out from slim cut sleeves. I admired the dress, truly, but it was also downright novel to have a full mirror again. Mother was right, I had gotten almost frighteningly lean. Perhaps my thin cheeks had given authenticity to all my ghostly antics. I hoped we’d be in Dalyn long enough to eat some real food.

“Now, you sweet thing, it’s time to be off, Jemin will be wearing a path in the floor downstairs if I know him.”

Goodbyes were short, and full of meaningful looks because we dare not speak in front of the servants. My throat grew tight. It wasn’t easy to say goodbye so soon, and knowing that even here, they weren’t really safe. Jemin had a carriage waiting for us, his and the doctor’s horses tethered behind. In a moment, we were all seated inside, the curtains were drawn, and we trundled down the road toward Dalyn. Immediately, the doctor pulled a wad of cotton out of his pocket and stuffed it in his ears, he smiled at us, then leaned against the wall of the carriage and closed his eyes as if he were going to sleep.

Jemin turned to Namal and I, “We are going to the palace, you will be given rooms there. The story is the same, you are the children of a merchant who was set upon by brigands. The king’s guardsmen rescued you and the king has taken an interest in you. This is your excuse for being here, and being at any function the king desires you to attend.”

Namal and I nodded. Then Namal asked, “What kind of merchant, and from where?”

“Pick something you know about, and be from Dalyn’s lands closer to the Bay. Your accent is very slight, but sounds like the Bay.”

“Spices,” said Namal. “An attractive industry with much potential, but most only manage moderate success.” Namal, the heir of Galhara, well-schooled in politics and economics.

“Very well,” Jemin turned to me, “Zare, the king is not married, however, he known to take comfort in women.” His eyes turned apologetic, “Everyone who sees you will assume this is why the king has brought you here. But it will serve as a cover for any meetings.”

My cheeks heated, “Very well.”

“Now, you cannot use your given names. You will go by Alban and Analie Meredithe.”

“Alban Meredithe, spices,” Namal smiled a little and bowed in his seat, “Honored to meet you. Let me introduce my sister, Analie.”

I demurred, and flicked my eyelashes, “I am honored.”

“Less polish,” said Jemin, seriously. “You are only moderately successful, and from the middle class. The court is foreign to you.”

The middle class. How strange to realize we had very little experience in that sphere. We knew the ways of the court and the circus but not the society in between. Our befuddlement must have shown on our faces because Jemin said, “It’s not so different from the court—but people are louder, say more to your face, bow with less precision, spill food occasionally, and talk openly about the wealth of the court.”

Namal and I looked at one another. “You may have to show us how to bow.”

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