(chapter continued from previous post)
Catching the sounds of motion, Kaveri looked towards the stairs that led to the second floor, and blinked.
Narcissa, instead of the proper pale-coloured and minimally-ornamented dresses that were meant to be seen only in private, since the more elaborate and bright mantle was the only thing most saw, was now in a dress that was more fitted and draped more closely against her body. More strikingly, it was woven of, Kaveri thought, threads of several shades of vivid blues and greens in at least two different weights, giving it a subtle pattern and texture that shifted as she moved. With it, she was wearing a moderate amount of amber jewellery in silver, and she had her eyes lined black and her lips darkened somehow; her normally confined hair was simply gathered back at the sides but mostly loose. Over one arm she had a mantle of a relatively plain muted blue and grey.
Beside her was, well, Lysandra, obviously, but the transformation from Evander was startling. Dressed to dance, she was wearing vibrant saffron, the full skirt of voluminous folds of lightweight fabric sitting perhaps a bit less low on narrower hips but extra flounces at the sides added a suggestion of width; the snug belly-baring top must have padding that helped create a hint of cleavage, and the very short sleeves were loose. Something had been used to make her face look a trifle paler and more even in tone, with her eyes lined heavily with black and something making the lids glitter and her lips deep red, and her black hair had reddish highlights. The heavy earrings dangling from her lobes, the smaller ones up higher, the elaborate necklace, the serpent bracelets around her upper arms and bangles around her wrists, the chain belt with its fringe of coins hanging from shorter chains of varying length, the anklets Kaveri caught a glimpse of a few times, were all gold—Kaveri would have been willing to bet they were real, not gilt or brass, and that those stones were all precious ones. Interestingly, she had a tattoo, a custom they’d encountered in various places on their travels. In this case, it was a blue-black serpent that nearly encircled her navel, but the head and tail turned outwards at the ends, leaving the very top open—like a vase with her navel inside, Kaveri thought. The whole thing was probably larger than the area covered by her palm.
Even more dramatic, though, was the change in how she moved. While Evander was graceful and fit, Lysandra moved with the poise and fluidity and confidence of a great cat.
Suddenly Kaveri found herself really anticipating seeing Lysandra dance.
The handles of a flexible basket were looped over one arm, and draped over it she carried a mantle in a complicated curving pattern of white and mist-grey and a grey so dark it was nearly black.
Tyrel, inevitably, was the one to find his voice first. “I’m sorry if this is rude in Enodia,” he said, “but you both look absolutely beautiful.”
Lysandra smiled. “From a stranger or an acquaintance, it would be rude. Under the circumstances, I think we can simply accept it as a compliment. Thank you.” Even her voice had shifted subtly: it wasn’t really much higher, but the quality of it was lighter somehow. “Ready?”
“Yes, and looking forward to this,” Kaveri said.
The royal cousins helped each other deftly get mantles wrapped into place, covering nearly all their finery—Kaveri reflecting that Lysandra was clearly far better at it than she or Mirren, which made sense. Both women, she noticed, smelled gently and pleasantly of something mellow and vaguely fruity.
Moonblood vision worked better in dim light, though of course best of all by moonlight, and they kept watch in all directions between them, especially near the places Kaveri had identified as possible risks. They encountered no trouble on the way, other than a few odd sidelong looks.
Their destination was on a moderately well-to-do street; as usual, there were few windows and they were small and placed high. Directly on the wall beside the door, a naturalistic peacock had been painted in vivid colours; somewhat more discreetly at the upper corner of the doorframe, a small orange-brown serpent covered the top handspan vertically and then did a right-angled turn as though it had crawled up the side and onto the top.
“This dancer god,” Kaveri said thoughtfully. “Her animal wouldn’t be a snake, by any chance?”
Lysandra laughed, nodded, and knocked on the door.
The man who opened it was broad-shouldered and muscular, with long blonde hair and a bushy beard; rather than a tunic, he wore a sort of short wrapped kilt of fabric with a pattern of intersecting multicoloured stripes and a sleeveless shirt with the neck laces left loose, of very lightweight white linen.
“Ladies! We feared you’d not be here tonight! You’re a welcome sight!”
“Would we disappoint Lysandra’s admirers?” Narcissa said, with a smile. She gestured to the quartet waiting in a loose crescent around them. “Our rescuers and new bodyguards.”
“And as native to Enodia as I am, from the look of them,” he chuckled. “Welcome, and in you all come, not standing in the street!” He stepped back, opening the door fully.
Kaveri wasn’t expecting to step into a small room that was entirely open along the far side to a courtyard. Music, from drums and something stringed and two male voices, was audible from farther on.
“The ale’s decent here,” the door-keeper added, as he closed the door behind them. “Not as good as farther north, but it’ll do. Keep the weapons sheathed unless the ladies are actually in danger, hm? Anyone else, you’d be leaving them with me.”
“They’ll stay put away for anything less,” Mirren assured him. “Thank you.”
“Yes, thank you, Ingo.” Lysandra wrapped an arm around the door-keeper’s waist and kissed his cheek, though she had to stretch to do so. “Not that we expect any trouble with you guarding the door.”
“That’s what Eumelia keeps me around for,” Ingo said, and grinned. “Well, one of the things.”
“And the rest of us can only dream about the other things, and sigh knowing it’s hopeless.”
“Oh, for you, we both might make an exception, except that I’m afraid of your protective sister there if she ever thought I was treating you too casually.”
“Good,” Narcissa said complacently, beginning to unwind her mantle.
Lysandra sighed dramatically. “The story of my life.” She started on hers as well.
The courtyard held several round tables of polished wood with designs inlaid in the tops, which appeared to in at least some cases be game boards, with stools around them. Two rectangles of couches had been placed close together so people could recline on them and converse, each couch with a small table; one rectangle was of three, one of seven. Clusters of chairs, some of them the local hourglass-front style, some more exotic ones in styles they’d seen in other places or entirely unfamiliar, often with small ornate tables nearby, filled the rest of the courtyard, though there was always space to move easily between the groupings of furniture. Along the central third of one long side, out a short distance from the wall, the floor had been raised by a couple of hand-widths in a broad strip, and on it were the musicians Kaveri had heard: a trio of men in colourful tunics, two with drums of very different kinds and a third with a stringed thing with a neck; one drummer and the one with the stringed thing were singing. Along the wall nearest the stage, sliding doors stood open, showing rooms that were similarly furnished.
At least half the seats were filled.
Kaveri picked out at least three voices as they passed that all said variations of, “Lysandra’s here!” and all in tones of delight.
“In the courtyard?” Narcissa asked. “Where we’ll be in the moonlight when the moons rise? Or inside?”
“From what you’ve said,” Kaveri said, “there are people here who are going to be very good at spotting us, and that’s probably not a good thing. So it’s best if we give them fewer clues. Inside.”
Narcissa nodded. She clasped Lysandra’s hand briefly, with a smile, then let go and led the way around the stage area while Lysandra headed directly for it.
“No titles, no honorifics?” Tyrel said quietly.
“Not here,” Narcissa said. “Everyone is equal.” She indicated a ring of chairs. “Here?”
“They have ale?” Madoc said, as they made themselves comfortable. “I thought it was considered barbaric in Enodia.”
“It is.” Kaveri wasn’t sure whether that was confirmation of how it was seen, or of the essential barbarity of it. “But Ingo isn’t the only northerner who comes here. They also have a number of wines, meads, and several types of tea and juices for those who prefer to avoid anything intoxicating.”
“Speaking of that,” Tyrel said. “You’re probably going to find that it has less of an effect on you than before, especially at night. If you’re in the moonlight, it’ll be almost none.”
“Interesting. It’s treated as a poison?”
“I think so.”
“Good to know.”
The serving-girl who came over was wearing a dress of a soft pale yellow with multi-coloured bands near the hems of skirt and sleeves and sweeping neckline, and a loose-weave fringed shawl of violet-blue was tied around her waist; silver gleamed high on her ears as well as in larger hoops through her earlobes, and she had her eyes darkened. The shape beneath, Kaveri thought, was unlikely to be female, but then, they’d been told: this was safe haven for those who crossed gender lines, those who were attracted to their own sex, those who preferred more than a single partner, those who in one way or another, sometimes or always, simply could not be happy within traditional roles and marriage. Given their requests, she returned promptly with three pottery mugs of ale, one of local mead for Kaveri since she rather liked it, and an elegant deep cup of watered wine for Narcissa.
“I’ve had worse,” Madoc pronounced, after a swallow of it.
“Ezkurra’s is better,” Mirren muttered.
“Who?” Narcissa asked.
“Someone I was working for when this bunch turned my life upside-down.” Mirren shrugged. “It’s certainly been a lot more interesting than spending my whole life with my father and his brother and making a living washing dishes and sometimes serving ale and food I sometimes helped to make.”
“No husband? Or is that rude to ask?”
“It’s not rude. I was betrothed once. He convinced me to have sex with him, then changed his mind because of that and refused to marry me. I think I was better off without him. I probably still would’ve been working anyway, I don’t think he could have supported a family alone, I just would have been trying to do it around having children. Probably still looking after my father and uncle, too. But I left them in the hands of a good housekeeper with the money to pay her a long time, if she doesn’t marry one of them first. I do like children, and under other conditions I’d have liked to have two or three I think, but that’s no longer an option. Unless I adopt them. I think I will, someday.”
“No chance at all?” Narcissa sounded more interested than disappointed.
“Believe me,” Kaveri said. “If we actually could, I would have by now. No related sorts of cycles, either. Just the one overwhelming one that influences everything.”
“That will be a welcome change.” She gave Kaveri a questioning look.
Kaveri just laughed. “Why I never married is a long story. My life’s gone through abrupt and unexpected major changes more than once.” She traded grins with Tyrel and Madoc. “Although where I grew up, marriage is basically a pledge between two or more people to live together, support one another materially and emotionally, and share the care of any children born to any women who are part of it. So I suppose in that sense, I have three husbands and a co-wife.”
“Defining terms is always important.” Narcissa sounded amused, and a smile tugged at her tinted lips.
(chapter continued next post!)