The steward directed the train a short distance down a hallway to a series of chambers where the party could change for the next thing—which was a presentation to the crowd outside and the signing of the treaty. There was no time to go all the way back to the Palace of Domes. Everyone split into predetermined groups to quickly change clothes and paint everyone’s faces gold. Brell, Karolya and I headed to curtained off alcove with the Countess.
Ilya Terr slipped in with us, and pulled the Countess close. He lifted his hands to cup her face, smudging the gold paint.
“My lord!” exclaimed the Countess in protest.
“Now for an elven tradition,” he grinned at her and then bent his neck and kissed her.
Her hands fluttered like startled birds and then came to rest on Ilya’s forearms as she melted into him.
Brell watched with open glee. Karolya quickly busied herself with the row of dresses the servants had laid out. Smiling to myself, I toed off my slippers and started unlacing the purple gown. Karolya’s eyes went wide when she noticed me disrobing while a male was still in the room—never mind the base layers and the fact that Ilya Terr was very much occupied.
I double checked my knives, Shiharr and Azzad were strapped to my thighs today—the only place they could be hidden with the dresses we had. I had a stiletto snug between my breasts and a brooch that was a push dagger in disguise. This morning I had briefly looked for a way to strap throwing knives around my waist like some sort of corset, but it got too bulky too quickly. It’s not as if we’d had time to alter the Countess’s gown to fit me and my knives. More’s the pity, it would’ve been good armor. When I finished checking the buckles, Brell handed me a soft wet cloth to wash my face clean. When I’d mostly removed the white paint, she was waiting with the skeletal hooped underskirt. I stepped into it and she lifted it till I was in a weird birdcage of ribbon and reeds from the waist down.
As she laced the skirt she said, “The hoopskirts are part of the wedding and coronation dresses—they are so much lighter than layers of petticoats that would be needed for the gowns.”
I looked over at the red dress that Karolya was gathering into her arms. “I can only imagine.”
Karolya carried the enormous pile of red cloth over and I lifted my arms. The two leanyodi lowered it over me together and carefully arranged it down over the hoopskirt until I stood inside a red mountain of gleaming, layered, silk. I stuck my hands in the slim pockets that hid in the seam from my hips, “These are entirely useless slits.”
“They are for handkerchiefs,” Karolya removed my hand and slipped a folded piece of red cloth into the pocket. “Nothing more.”
Next was the boned bodice, it’s lace and beadwork deer as exquisite as I remembered them from packing in Wuhnravinwel. Brell was almost finished lacing the back when Ilya and the Countess stepped away from one another. They looked breathless, and now they both needed their make-up re-done. Ilya Terr squeezed the Countess’s hand and stepped toward me.
“Are you ready for this?” he asked, gravely.
“I am, my lord,” I replied. “Are you?”
He nodded, “As ever for war.” He bowed to me, then kissing the Countess’s hand, turned and let himself out of the curtained alcove.
Karolya hurried to start unbuttoning the Countess’s wedding gown. “He’s going to make us late,” she tutted.
“Worthwhile, though,” I said, tossing a smirk at the Countess, who was almost certainly red as my ridiculous gown underneath all that gold paint.
Brell laughed from where she’d started laying out the make-up she’d use on me. “Definitely worthwhile.”
“You would’ve both been needed for the presentation gown anyway,” said the Countess, stepping out of the wedding dress. “I don’t think it cost us anything.”
We all laughed then, and it felt almost normal.
Brell and Karolya worked with speed and skill to change our hair and paint—or re-paint—all our faces gold. When they were done with me, Brell pointed me at the wall mirror and said, “You are transformed.”
I looked and it took a moment to see past the extravagant dress to my painted face. My hair was entirely obscured by the woven beads that covered my head and dripped down my forehead. Kohl brought out my eyes, and Brell had dusted my cheeks and lips with a bronze that brought some dimension back to the flat gold. I wasn’t sure how she’d done it, but she’d masked the shape of my face so I liked more like the Countess. I didn’t recognize myself. Hopefully no one else would either.
The Countess, once changed, went to help Brell and Karolya into their reds, and help get their faces done a little more quickly while I walked around in the hoopskirts trying to internalize my new width. This headdress, too, was taller and more spectacular than the ones I’d worn throughout the week, with spikes representing the rays of the sun reaching skyward from the back of my head. The waterfall of beads down the sides and the back would take getting used to. I didn’t know how I was expected to hear anything over the beads.
There was a knock on the wall, and Karolya trilled, “We’re almost ready.”
The curtain shifted and Quill stepped into the alcove. He was dressed in a dark blue Magadarian suit, and he was breathtaking.
Karolya visibly swallowed her objection to his entrance and turned back to fuss with the last of Brell’s face paint. Quill nodded a greeting to the group and approached where the Countess and I stood.
“How do I look?” I asked, feeling abruptly self-conscious.
He looked over the dress and accoutrements, then scanned the paint on my face before meeting my eyes and looking at me. His lips curved up. “Important.”
Quill turned to the Countess. “May I have a word with Zephra?”
“Of course,” the Countess curtsied to me, as a leanyod would, and walked away to join Brell and Karolya, deliberately turning her back to us. A semblance of privacy, at least. About as much as the Countess ever got. I did not long for this life.
Quill and I looked at each other for a long moment. Eventually he said, “In your dreams, you cannot reach your knives and you feel betrayed.”
I grimaced down at the voluminous skirts blocking my access to Shiharr and Azzad. “I know.”
He walked to me, encroaching on the dress as if he were going to dance with me. He lifted one hand and ran it along the beads of the headdress, then traced along my cheek and jaw without touching, but I felt the warmth from his fingertips like brands. I closed my eyes and my hand rose to his elbow.
“You are not allowed to die, Zare Caspian,” he said, very softly, his breath a puff on my lips.
My eyes opened, and I was looking straight into his vivid brown eyes flecked with green. There was nothing teasing or flirtatious in his face. Just the windows that went straight to his soul, serious and a little frightened. “You’re not allowed to die either,” I managed, “Quilleran Rhydderick.”
Still standing close, he took my hand, and lifted it to his lips. The kiss was tender, and filled my whole body and soul with longing. “Be cunning, be fearsome, and then come back to me.” He brushed his thumb lightly over the back of my hand, pressed something hard into my palm, and then left.
I looked down and opened my hand. It was an oblong piece of metal and bone carved with a handful of dwarven runes. I’d seen things like this before, when I’d been to Kelphas of the dwarves. I flicked my wrist and the hidden blade sprang free, gleaming and savage in the sunlight. Folding the blade back I slipped it into my pocket and smiled.