I was once on a ship that had been assailed by pirates south of Lasthaven. They'd punched a hole in her prow before we'd driven them off, and we'd not the tingles to repair her. Every man that could be spared from the sails was put on bailing duty. The food had all been ruined or swept off-board; there was naught but sea-water to drink. All we could do was limp her along leagues and leagues of sheer cliff walls and boulder-strewn shores, knowing we were taking her into enemy territory even if we managed to find a beachable stretch of land, and that those who survived would no doubt be put to the sword before they could find another way home.
Remembering those four days, some of the very worst in my life, is still better than paying mind to the lord doing Saints-knows to my chest hair.
"Will you stop twitching!" he demands for a third time, from somewhere below my collarbone. I swallow and nod and try to make out shapes in the wooden rafters overhead instead. That one looks like a sheep. That one looks like a headless man, who is no doubt having a better time of it than me.
"As you are well aware, the festival season will limit the access of visitors to the castle," Duchess Tzerri is explaining to Alim out in the hall. "Even we received only a limited pass, as if this court believes we had even the slightest desire to court any of their offspring away. Now, do you have any interest yourself in obtaining a partner this season?"
Alim's reply is lost in a fiery wrench. He doesn't lose the sound I make, uncomfortably close to that of a dying whale, from the snigger he makes after.
At Asotegi's recommendation, we'd not made the castle our first stop when we'd reached the grand, sprawling walled city of Rzalez, but instead took a detour to a house set into the base of the hill the castle crowned, cozy and furnished well. He'd known there would be ambassadors there, nobles sent by Queen Tzesa to keep up the good relations between her city and this one, and he thought it wise for us to meet with them first, to get what words of wisdom and rumors they might know.
The ambassadors had turned out to be Duchess Tzerri and her consort Jex, the only other bonded pair currently in the kingdom, and folk I had met at some of Asotegi's earlier battles. I had thought them to be with General Jazimen's army but, as the Duchess had explained to us after she'd admirably gotten over her shock at being enlisted to help two humans and an army doctor, they serve in whatever manner the kingdom and Her Highness require of them. I'd been sore curious about them when I'd learned that they had a magic in common with Asotegi and myself, but that was before I knew what I was going to be in for.
I'd put my foot down when Alim had argued we'd do just fine on our own, told him that we need all the assistance we can get. So this torture is my own damned fault.
Kore is keeping me company while he hammers out plans with the Duchess, something I'd appreciate more if she didn't have to stuff half her fist into her mouth to hold back the giggles at my misfortune. She'd just about died laughing when she saw the leggings they're expecting me to wear and has been on the edge ever since. That had been an hour ago, an hour when I'd been a wide-eyed innocent, hopeful about the world and thinking well of other folk.
"I suggest you reconsider that stance," says the Duchess's firm voice. "What other excuse do you plan to give them for your presence? There will be no political discussion until the competition has finished."
Apparently we'd picked the single worst time to make our journey to the west—all the nobles here are in the middle of some kind of gods-ordained matchmaking event that has the city decked out in a violent explosion of color and the guards on high alert. Which is why, after Alim ignored my insistence about seeing the ambassadors as we'd been asked to and marched off towards the castle at once, we'd been promptly barred from even getting within the outer walls. The guards had taken one look at our grubby, salt-crusted clothes and told us that the begging street was to the east. Luckily, between Kore and me, we were able to bear Alim bodily away before he could start a shouting match with the guards that would bar us from the city entire.
The doctor's reply now is quiet, with that air of force casualness that makes me sharpen my hearing as far as it will go. "If they've turned away the famed Duchess Tzerri and her beloved consort, what do you expect they will do to the youngest Wzaritec son?"
"I expect that you had some way of countering this handicap. Why else were you sent here, otherwise?" She sounds about as puzzled as the situation calls for, I think with a wince. But before Alim can launch into the rant Kore and I heard five times on the Deadhead, the Duchess decides, "I expect that you will just have to lie, then. You do not need to choose a spouse from the competitors, simply give them the impression that you will."
At least that's the sort of thing we're familiar with, now. "I think it's—ow!—a good idea, Alim," I call out, and all but droop with relief when Jex pulls away and takes his torture devices with him.
"Why don't you find a spouse, if our gracious hosts are going to all this effort to make you look presentable for once in your life," is the snarled reply.
"Human!" I call back. I can't think of a time I've been happier to say that.
"He's right, dear. Don't make such foolish suggestions." I don't need to guess to know what kind of face Alim might be making; Kore, peering around my side to see through the doorway, is all but biting through her knuckle now. "Now, Calentine, what excuse are you planning to give for your presence?"
My own smile drops away when I realize the lord's just come back with his arms piled high with more clothes than I've ever seen in my life. Seems that the torture isn't ending, just beginning. I shift more weight onto my good leg—the staff was making the presentable-making process tricky, apparently—and say, "Er, a representative of the General Superior? I am his naval advisor, my lady."
"Then you wish Duke Rzalez to know that you are responsible for his east tower's new home in the sea?"
Now it's Alim's term to smirk; I can hear it in his voice. "We could always say Calentine was following orders and the blame lays squarely on our dear General's shoulders. That should make him join us at once."
"Enough!" The Duchess's voice goes a bit muffled as her focus yanks an undertunic over my head, and I wiggle to help out. "Duke Rzalez is honorable as the godsword, and he understands war. He will not be pleased that such a figure was sent to meet him, but he will understand the implications that having such a force of destruction on his own side will be a boon, as well as receive the General's message that he is more than willing to strong-arm the Duke if he must." I hadn't given a thought to there being more than one reason why Asotegi and the Queen wanted me to go on this trip, but it cheers me up some, to think that it might be my own doing and not, as Alim had said, just because they wanted me away from General Grei. "You must use this to your advantage so it cannot be used against you as a weakness. Jex, love, put him in the gold. We want him to look like a warrior."
"Then what shall my story be?" Alim asks, sounding rather put out.
"We will work on that when we come to it. I am much more interested in explaining the presence of the young lady."
Kore's head snaps up, her hands dropping down into her lap like she's forgotten she can do else with them. "'m just here to see to the boats, my lady," she mutters, in the strongest islander accent I've heard from her yet. "Not for fine fripperies, I am."
"Nonsense. Calentine told me that you were an instrumental part of the negotiation process and you will not fool me with misleading." Kore gives me a look all manner of betrayed, and I lift my shoulders, not put out in the least. "Come with me; I will find you an outfit."
The young woman gives a small, unhappy sigh, but slides off the bench and trots out obediently into the hall. Alim takes her place a moment later, slamming down with his arms folded and his face a stormcloud of fury.
"I told you I should not have come," he growls towards me, but at, I think, mostly himself. "I should never have even left camp. I could be sunning myself on a battlefield, watching soldiers hack each other to pieces, and spending my nights stretched out under some of the handsomest nobles our kingdom has to offer."
"Maybe there'll be a few handsome nobles in Rzalez's court," I point out, trying to be helpful, and end up with a mouthful of linen as a scarf gets wrapped around my neck. "Er, my lord—"
"I'm just looking at the color," Jex mutters, frowning at me, or maybe the color; I've no idea what he's found so distasteful about it, or why he needed it by my face to find that fault. I know just as little about this lord, since he tends to let the Duchess do all the talking needed. But he seems a serious sort, and younger than the first impression I'd gotten of him during those early battlefield days, when I felt a hell of a lot younger myself. I have noticed that he brightens up a treat whenever the Duchess wanders by, and from the way he glances about, where exactly she is in the house at any given moment, and from the set of his mouth how near she is to our doorway. It makes me curious to know if Asotegi does any of that when I'm not around, although it'd be a rather tricky thing for me to find out on my own.
"Too much yellow," Alim snaps from the bench, and Jex nods and takes it away. "You wouldn't know handsome if it had its mouth on your dick, sailor, so you aren't one to talk." Actually, I think I might notice that—although damned if I'd say that here. "The issue has nothing to do with their presence. It has to do with the fact that every single person there will know who I am the moment they lay eyes on me, and Rzalez's court has even less love for my family than Our Lady Queen's."
"The hair," Jex murmurs, nodding again—apparently at the new scarf, because this one gets looped around my waist and cinched in a knot I can't pull up any complaints about.
"What about the hair, my lord?" I ask.
"It's red, like all of the Wzaritec family," he says, now forcing my arms into a coat of some sort—although not much of one, given that the sleeves barely reach my elbows and the rest hangs down to my ankles with the other layers. "And worn long in one length in the style of his people." Alim nods and tosses it over his shoulder, as he does; I'd never thought about the action being a sort of reminder of where he's from, since he seems so anxious to get away from it.
"If that's the problem," I say, brow creasing, "then why can't he just dye it like the army does? Or change the style?"
He and Jex share a look, like I've just said something so foolish that even those not disposed to like each other have found common ground, and I stifle a sigh—must be another damned dzalin cultural thing. A moment later though, Alim sits upright with more energy than I've seen him have since we set foot on Kore's boat—a ride he spent mostly unconscious when he wasn't ranting, dosing himself with his own battle toxin so he wouldn't have to think about the water around him—and says, "We should cut your hair."
"Uh," I say, "pardon?"
"Do you remember what happened the last time you were in this city, sailor, or did all the blows to your head knock the memory clean out? The Duke's soldiers found you because they were looking for tall, blonde, scruffy humans. There's little we can do for your obscene height besides chop your legs off altogether, and the Duchess and her consort are seeing to your ill-kempt look, but the hair has got to go."
I've been trying desperately the whole time not to remember that particular fateful day that had marked my first visit to this city, the one that had ended with Asotegi's screams and my—temporary—death, but Alim's point, as usual, isn't a bad one. I'd even feel a bit safer, knowing I didn't look like myself. That doesn't mean I want anyone messing around with my hair, though. I like my hair.
I say as much, and get a very smug look and a very pained one in return. "Your companion is right," Jex says. "All of the fine cloth in the world will do nothing to disguise the unfashionable style of your hair."
"What if it's wrapping it in a turban?" I suggest weakly.
Alim is the one with the haircutting talent, so Jex excuses himself to go check on the Duchess as I'm shoved onto the bench myself. But instead of leaping to work with glee, the doctor eyes my slumped shoulders, my wary face, and drawls, "Paraz adores that stringy mop so much, his grief at seeing you without that mess might tempt him to retribution. It's almost enough to stay my hand."
I can't help but brighten a little. "He likes my hair?"
Alim's eyes roll up to the ceiling. "Roping for second-hand compliments, sailor? One might think poorly of you. By definition, those who, shall we say, have advisors, adore every part of you."
"Oh." My shoulders slump a bit further. I forget, sometimes, that Asotegi's compelled towards me because of our bond, broken or not. He's insisted a few times that he likes me for certain reasons outside the bond, too, and I believe him most of the time, but on some issues it's tricky to tell, and harder still to know how I should take it. Some part of me is just glad to be liked, even if the reason behind it is magic. With that thought, I force a smile on and say, "Guess he'd like it no matter what you did with it, then."
"Hardly," Alim grumbles, "because if he thought I did a substandard job and caused you even the least bit of discomfort, then he'll have my head for it."
I guess that's as reassured as I'm going to get. "Right," I sigh. "Well, I trust you. Do what you think is best."
Apparently, that's clenching his hands so tightly his palms go red around his well-trimmed nails.
"Really," Alim hisses, my gaze jerking up to his face to see naught but fury again. "What is it that I have done, to make you decide I am trustworthy? Is it the healing, or my selfless acts of valor? Or are you touched by my ever-so-painful history as the poor abused scion, fleeing his home for greener pastures?"
Somehow I don't think this is about hair any more. I blink up at him, completely at a loss as to why this, of all things, has set him off so, and say, "I guess it would be because you've never steered me wrong. I mean, your advice was good enough to sway the Corsair King's mind, and you were right, you know, about the Princess and Asotegi, and probably about how I should have stayed in Gullcry with him, to boot. Does this really matter, Alim? If it bothers you somehow, then I could say that I trust you to know more about hair styles than I do, because I'd trust anyone with that."
Now he's just staring at me, and—I almost hate that, the way he looks defenseless without his anger there. I had a want to talk him out of messing up my hair, but there's not a way I'm going to do that now. Not when it looks like he's without words for once, no vicious phrase to toss out to push me away.
"Go on," I say, gently as I might. "I don't mind."
Ah, now he's back. "Don't patronize me," he snaps, though not as harshly as he had before. "And turn to the side, so I can actually reach you."
To my surprise, he doesn't start his fingers glowing or mutter some chant over my head when I do so, but takes out the dagger from his belt sheath instead. It reminds me that it's not the first time these last days that I've seen him look so lost. Helene had given one each to Alim and Kore when we departed. "These are two of my most favorite daggers," she had told them. "If I find out that they haven't been used, then I'll expect to have them returned, do you understand?" Kore had been holding onto hers so tightly that I'm surprised she still doesn't have handle-creases in her hands, had looked both a bit terrified to be holding a weapon and all manner of proud she'd been given one. It was Alim's reaction that had surprised me the most, though. He had looked like my cousin had carved out her heart and handed it to him. Like such an act was so unexpected and huge his life had just turned inside out before his eyes.
And it makes me think, because at the time I had wondered—in a heap of horrified terror—if he'd developed some sort of feelings for my cousin. I'd spent most of the boat ride here wondering if I ought to forbid him from ever seeing her again—and risk Helene's wrath, if such feelings were returned—or offering cautious advice, in hopes of seeing my cousin happy, if such a person as Alim could ever make anyone happy.
But now, seeing him so flustered here, I have to wonder—think some about what's in common with a gift and a statement of trust. I'd seen nothing more than friendship in those gestures, but might it be we're butting up against another unfamiliar dzalin custom again? I mean, Alim's prickliness means he doesn't get such things often, or maybe even—
I think very carefully, then say, "By the way, dosing yourself with the sleep toxin on the boat—that was really smart of you."
My shout of pain brings Jex running into the room, a deadly-looking violet light racing about his arms, but Alim's already got his hand over my ear, yanking me to the side so that the blood doesn't drip onto the nice coat. "It was an accident!" he snaps, about an octave higher than usual. "My hand slipped! He's fine! We're all fine!"
Jex agrees to leave again only once he's been shown that the cut is completely healed, though his frown is suspicious. Alim cleans off the dagger in frantic jerks on the scarf that had been too yellow, and growls, "I expect you will not want me to continue?" The slightest jerk of his voice makes it a question.
Now that the pain's faded away, I'm almost grinning too hard to say, "No." And then, when I can say it in a straight voice, add, "I trust you."
He goes this mottled red and white color that I'd pay a pretty coin to get a painting of. "Next time I am going to remove your ear from your head," he snarls.
Alim'd complained so bitterly about my being friendly to everyone else that I'd never realized what he was getting at. Now that I know how to get under the doctor's skin... well, I can think of an insult or two or a million I owe him back for.
And I can even be nice while doing it. This trip is starting to look up already.
We get through the rest of the haircut without any more startling discoveries, although Alim does remark in some surprise how much darker the middle parts of my hair are than then ends—maybe dzalin hair doesn't bleach in the sun as human's does. And he more than pays me back for the trouble of me making him cut my ear—as he puts it—judging by the alarming length of the curls that float their way down to the ground.
When he finishes, he steps back, smirks in all kind of satisfaction, and says, "Well... you can always grow it back. Eventually."
That does it.
"I just wish it could look as nice as your hair always does," I tell him, earnestly as I might.
Jex hurries back before Alim can actually cut off my head, makes a startled noise at my appearance that leaves my stomach twisting, and ushers us all out into the hall, giving me just a moment to grab my staff. The Duchess is out there already, Kore at her side. The young woman looks as stiff and uncomfortable as she dares to be around nobles, reaching up every few moments to tug at the wild mass of curls and loops the Duchess has gotten her hair into. She's in a dress of scarlet even more brilliant than a parrot's feathers, close at the sleeves and the waist, with a vest of deep purple that runs down the length of it. Kore could not stand out more in the lantern-lit hall if she tried, and from the tense line of her shoulders, she knows it.
But when she catches sight of me, her eyes go wide as the moon and a startled giggle flees her, before she slams her hand over her mouth a moment later to hold back the sound. I do naught but grin and bow her way, and Kore drops her hand with a real, tiny smile—and just like that, she's lovely, through and through, as if it was only her own trying that was making it otherwise.
"Wonderful!" the Duchess exclaims, clasping her hands together. "I am almost starting to believe this plan has a glimmer of success. Now, rather than harness every problem to the same carriage at once, let us do this in stages. While we think up solutions to Ja Alim's unfortunate circumstances, why don't you two go ahead to the castle and ask for an invitation? Simply state that you wish to meet with the Duke for matters of royal importance, but that you'd be more than happy to wait until the ceremonies have ended for the evening. But please, do not attempt to enter until we have had time to coach you on proper court manners, because I must imagine the behaviours appropriate for a human court differ from our own."
I'd love to throw Kore into a high-stakes game of Sheeps and Wolves, the way she just nods to those words. I have to rub the back of my neck hard to keep a smile down and just say, "No doubt, my lady."
When we return to the house, they've only moved far enough to be seated on the wall benches, the Duchess just starting to sketch out something on a larger version of the army slates as Jex sorts through a basket of chalks to pick out different colors. "You received an invitation in five minutes?" she asks, her violet brows climbing up.
"No, my lady," I reply, not sure whether to sigh or throw up my hands; I've all but resigned myself to being resigned. "The guards said, until the event is over, no humans allowed into the castle."
The chalk breaks between Jex's fingers, the Duchess lays down her slate with a rough sigh, and Alim slouches on his bench and drawls, "What has the world come to, when sailors have been passed over for the exiled son of traitors?"
Kore has the grace not to smile, but I don't think I've ever seen her look so happy.
The Duchess declares that there's no point in attempting any further plans until we've all had a night to sleep on it, and she and Jex turn us out into the city to find lodging for our stay. The house has a good-sized bedroom, but the nobles seem surprisingly against the notion of letting us stay on their floor for the meanwhile. They do gift Alim with a scarf to wrap about his hair, though, as a temporary measure against being recognized in the city.
The choice of lodgings is left up to me, since Alim's about as willing to make decisions as he is to get his clothes muddy and Kore would sleep on her boat, fancy clothes be damned. Shrugging, I decide we might as well try our luck at the one inn in the city that might have cause to think fondly on us. Asssuming, that is, that the keeper hadn't high-tailed it out of town with the gold Asotegi gave him.
Seems he's remodeled instead: the new inn could house my whole village and then some, painted bright as a child's ship and draped with twice as many banners as any of the buildings around us. "He's housing nobles," Alim murmurs, squinting at the writing on one of them. "It seems his place has risen in the world."
I'm a mite nervous I might not be recognized in my new fancy get-up, but the owner drags me into a hug soon as he sees me. "The man who risked his life for my Patya!" he cries, the top of his bald head clunking against my breast. The serving girl I'd met last time sighs and shakes her head, but she gives me a certain hopeful smile the second time I look at her. I try to smile back in a way that I hope conveys she's very pretty, but about half my age, and I'm too busy thinking of starting a life with a man besides. Not too sure if I succeed in all that, but I try. Kore looks all manner of skeptical at the whole proceedings, but pleased enough that we're out of the drizzle that's started up outside, even if she still mutters her boat would be less trouble.
For our trouble, we get a room for free—"Best in the house! Well, best I've got left after all the ones have been rented out for the festival"—and a meal to boot. Kore and I stuff ourselves with the best chicken and beets I've tasted in months, and Alim picks halfway through a plate of greens. The main room is full to bursting, and we're the cause of no few lines of gossip winding their ways through the room; between the humans, wondering why Kore and I are so well dressed—or rather, from the snippits I hear, why a fisherfolk woman and a hillfolk man are so well dressed, and sitting next to each other to boot—and from the dzali that otherwise try to cross the space as quickly as possible to go to their rooms, wondering who Alim could possibly be and what he's doing eating with humans. After the food, I'm all for wanting to jump into those conversations, pick up the local news and maybe add a bit to the rumors about us. But since Kore looks like she's about to wilt under the attention and Alim is starting to leave scratches in his wooden bowl each time he jabs his fork into it, we decide to retire instead.
The room is like nothing I've ever seen in an inn, with a bed for each of us instead of pallet space or one to share, and windows all along one wall. Kore makes a beeline for the one nearest the window, then freezes and glances at us to make sure we didn't want that one instead. I collapse back on the middle bed with a contented sigh. To no surprise at all, Alim misses his cue and walks to the window, making Kore look all manner of uncertain, but he just seems to want to look out it.
"I'm disappointed that I didn't get to see your pathetic angry face, sailor, when you announced the guards' most reasonable ban," he says, tapping his fingers along the glass like he's looking for a weak point.
"Angry, me?" I pick my head off of the very comfy pillow to look at him. "I guess I'd see why you'd think that. I feel that I should be angry, like. But there's been so many times now that this has been a trouble that it doesn't seem worth the bother to be troubled, you see? And the guard was really pretty nice about it, all things considered. I think she wouldn't have cared either way if it was up to her, but it's clear it wasn't, and there was naught to be done with getting angry about it."
"And you are really this blithe that this impossible task is over before it's done? That you've left your dear Paraz hoping and waiting for your return with an army at your back, and you've just—given up?" Alim spins around to lean back against the window, meeting my gaze very even-like, like he can't be certain whether he ought to be sneering or scowling and this is the best he can manage.
"Giving up?" I blink. "They'll let you in. We'll just need to do some different thinking, that's all."
Apparently he's decided on anger himself. He slams over, crumples the nice red-and-gold collar of the coat Jex has put me in, and shoves me down against the bedding.
"They will NOT be letting me in!" he snarls. "I might not have a hope of drilling this through your stupid head, but they. all. hate. me! I ask for an army, they'll drop it off at my parents' door!"
Through the curve of his arm, I can see Kore very carefully remove the dagger from her belt and lay it beside her hand on the bed. I flick my hand the best as I can from this angle in the fisherfolk's cast-off, hoping she'll take the meaning right.
Then I say—a bit hoarsely, given how he's leaning on me—"Lord Jex said it was just your hair they'd know, and you'd not denied it. Have any of these folk met you proper?"
"It doesn't matter!" he shouts, pressing down so close over my head that he's in danger of doing a sommersault over the top of the bed. "If I do something to my hair, they'll know I've got something to hide! That I'm pretending to be someone I'm—that I'm not!"
Between Alim and Asotegi, I'm starting to wonder if the dzali just find something about hair so much more meaningful than the rest of folk do.
Kore makes a soft noise and mumbles, "You could always be someone else."
We both look at her; well, I more look over her head, since if I turn my head any further I'll strangle myself on Alim's wrist. "What?" he snarls.
She lifts her shoulders and a whole heap of red and violet silk. "Just pretend you're pretending to be someone else. You can't fool 'em about looking suspicious, if you say so, but you could, you know. Wear a mask or something. Look extra suspicious. And pretend to be someone else."
"Huh," I say, catching on, "yeah, like, the Queen's long-lost son. Or Asotegi's brother who no one knows about."
Alim stares at Kore for a long moment, before turning his gaze down on me. "Everyone knows Paraz's brother," he says in a rather brittle tone. "He was one of our most renowned heroes before his death."
"Oh," I reply, wincing a bit and glad I'd learned that here rather than untimely-like later. Asotegi never talks about his family. "Still could work. A hero back from the dead?"
"Maybe the Duchess has some relative," Kore suggests, rather more reasonably. "Gives you some kind of reason to be here, too."
Alim sits down on the bed with a thunk, absently fixing my collar where he's creased it. "I don't like it," he says. "If they find out..."
"Then they'll've been in a place to find out," I point out, "as opposed to now, when we can't even get in that close."
"Terrible. Terrible!" he says, throwing up his hands. "Suppose for an instant I entertain this mad idea. The Duke isn't going to put any trust into someone who is pretending to be someone else, and certainly not enough to give him an army!"
"Well, I'm supposed to be asking about the army, not you," I say. "Shows of power and all that the Duchess was talking about. All we need you to do is get the Duke to agree to meet me. And you're good at strong-arming folk into doing just about anything you want them to; we all know that."
He goes that funny mottled color again, staring down at the blankets like they contain the answers to all that plagues us. "Sailor," he snarls, "I am good at seducing people."
"Rich, powerful men, wasn't it?" I muse, trying to remember his words through the haze of rocha. "Isn't that what the Duke is?"
"No," he says firmly. "And your uninformed attempts at humor are going to make my ears bleed. Duke Rzalez is a legend. Duke Rzalez is not seducible. He does not have weak points, and he would never malign his ideals for any reason, let alone over something as mundane as the tug between his legs. He is the single most important citizen in our kingdom after the Queen, a figure of authority that—wait, why am I wasting my words on you? It is not happening. At best, I will be able to approach his advisors, and if I'm lucky, his time scheduler; if I am not, then I will be facing the guards, same as you did."
"Well," I say comfortingly, "if none of those are rich powerful men, then I expect you'll come up with something."
"I... Gods, sailor, have I ever mentioned how much I hate you?"
"Once or twice," I agree. "Now, can we all get some sleep? Looks like we'll have a long day ahead of ourselves."
When the Duchess reaches out and pulls Kore into a hug, Kore looks like she wishes she'd never spoken up; nay, that she never met any of us, never agreed on this mad journey gold or no, never landed at Eassea in the first place.
"You'll be Jex's half-brother," she declares after, and her focus shrugs his acceptance without protest. "Everyone knows that his mother comes from a family of heretics; they'll think little of you attempting to disguise your heritage, and nothing once they realize the heritage you are trying to hide. And, you're in luck—their colors are blue and green," she adds, with a significant look at Alim's hair.
"Are those lucky colors, my lady?" I ask, puzzled. The dzali and—hell, even Kore—exchange a look that time. I'll never understand these people.
"It hardly matters if I'm to dye my hair, skin color or no," Alim drawls, twisting a long lock about his fingers. "If you tell me this must be blue, then I will protest most dearly." To my surprise, he tilts his head towards me and says in a rather more friendly tone than I expect from him, "Jara would crow for weeks if I were to pick her color."
The thought makes me smile and blink hard, twice—and gives me an idea. "Why not dye it red?" I ask. "Maybe a different shade if that's a bother, but—not many folk would be expecting that."
"Oh, this plan is absurd," the Duchess breathes, clasping her hands to her chest. "It's marvelous. I will go see what powders the previous tenants left us in the cellar and you, dear, should come with me, in case your eyes spot something mine do not." Kore nods, plainly still surprised to be included. "Jex, love, to the closets; you may have a few of your old garments that would fit him. In the meantime, Alim, do see what you can do about the style. That will belie any good we can do elsewhere."
"You do realize," Alim says to me as he walks from room to room until he finds one with a particularly fine mirror, "no one asked you to follow me?"
"Do you want me to leave?" I ask.
"Not any more than usual," he mutters, tugging at the strapping on his dagger, which is as good as I'll hear from him. Smiling a bit, I duck into the room myself.
And end up blinking at the tall, unexpected stranger there. I've seen myself a time or two in cheap, cloudy inn mirrors, and of course caught sight of my mug in rippling rivers, but never like this. Not dressed in gray silk, in a coat of gold and brilliant red with that flash of bright blue at my belt, nor with hair curling just to my chin, gone nigh amber after Alim had cut away the palest bits. My nose isn't the right shape for dzalin good looks, my jaw too square and my frame too skinny for the height of me, but that could very well be a prince there blinking back at me. Not from around here, of course—but one from a distant shore.
"Bet you wouldn't know how to gut a marlin," I murmur to that prince, grinning a bit. Huh, maybe Alim is right—I look rather too cheerful when I smile.
"Do I need to check your skull for further injury?" Alim grouses, undoing the clasps at his neck so that he can pull his tunic down around his shoulders. "Or has the poison from that meat you eat finally sapped your mind? Perhaps I should offer Kore a check-up as well."
"Just surprised that the clothes really do make a difference," I tell him, and his eye roll says, finally.
"Now that you have learned the very first rule of social interaction, perhaps you wouldn't mind getting out of my light," he grumbles. With a deft flick of his wrist, he gathers all of his hair up into his grasp, pulling it to the side and laying the dagger along it. Then he hesitates, adjusting the angle of his hand a few times, sliding it now higher, now lower, as if checking the length it should be.
I cross my arms, leaning against the door frame as I watch, curious. "Problem?"
"Would you," he snarls, then repeats a little more quietly, "would you throw away the last handkerchief of the mother that abandoned you, if that was all you had? No matter how much you might want to?"
I press a hand to the little leather bag that hangs beneath my tunic, with a poor-carved game-piece inside that almost certainly isn't from Asotegi, and say, "You could keep it, though." He gives me a look in the mirror, and I explain, "There's a song, hell, a dozen songs, about folk," women, to be specific, but he doesn't need to know that, "who cut off their hair for some great purpose, to join the army or make a rope to safety or whatnot, and keep it after to remind them."
"I will burn it when I'm done," he says sharply, then takes a breath and thrusts the dagger out towards me, hilt-first.
I take it from him cautious as an adder, not sure how I feel about this being put on my head, but not willing to let him down. "I'm not refusing," I say, replacing his grip on the lock of hair, "but I've not done this before."
"Yeah, well," he mutters, finding sudden interest in the vase in the corner, "you know the line. Do it."
I suck in a breath at the realization that prickly, sour, hate-filled Alim trusts me, and that jolts me into action and surety as nothing else might have. I draw Helene's dagger across his hair in one quick strike, then—"Oh, shit, uh — was that too short?"
"Oh for the love of—out, sailor!"
When they're done putting Alim through the same logmill we'd got run through yesterday, the Duchess and Jex push him out to where Kore and I are waiting. She makes a squeaking noise I've not heard from her, drawing all eyes.
"Didn't say nothin'," she mutters towards the ground, "Nothin' at all," but she keeps sneaking looks towards the doctor that make the Duchess look especially proud.
I'm not sure what's got them fussing; Alim pretty much always looks the same, even if his hair is now sliced up from his chin in the front to a point in the back, and a dark sunset red. To be honest, with those layers of green robes they've got him in, he kind of looks like a flower, but I'm not going to be the one to say that.
"Just one last touch," the Duchess says, and comes out from her rooms with a black powder, which she spreads liberally over his eyelids. "Now you look like someone with something to hide." Kore nods fervently.
I shrug and say, "We should probably be off before it starts raining, or whatnot."
We walk partway to the castle with Alim to give him courage, although we break off before we get too close just in case the guard from before is there. "Just remember, you're not here to get an army, just to get us entrance," I remind him.
"I know what I'm doing, sailor," he snarls. He's nigh as pale as the clouds overhead.
Kore reaches out and tugs very quickly on the edge of his sleeve, careful not to touch skin. When he bends his head down to see what the matter is, she mutters a few quick words, gesturing towards his waist, where I know he insisted on keeping his dagger on him despite an apparent weapons ban in peace-loving Rzalez's court. When she's done, he just looks rather annoyed, not relieved, but nods and strides off without another word.
After he's gone far enough that I'm sure his dzalin hearing won't let him catch my words, I ask, "What did you tell him?"
"That the Captain wouldn't have given a gift to anyone who didn't earn it," she says firmly, then sucks in a breath, glacing up at me. "'Course, I could be wrong about that."
"Nah," I reply with a smile, warmed through and through. "You're not wrong about that, one bit."
Rzalez City is bright, colorful, and sprawling, with enough inns to keep any sailor coming back and no less than three grand markets. But the whole city is draped with banners advertising the marriage contests we're not allowed to attend, which is a rather depressing reminder of how little we rate in the eyes of most dzalin, exceptions like Jara and Asotegi not withstanding. So, by an unspoken sort of agreement, Kore and I take a stroll in the shadow of the castle walls, which are rather more gray and grim than the rest, and better suits us for it.
"Last night," Kore murmurs, gingerly lifting up her skirts as she steps over a puddle, "I wasn't sure..."
"You did right," I say quickly. "He wouldn't've actually hurt me. I mean, not beyond what he could repair, at least."
"Didn't mean that. I heard... crying."
I shut my mouth tightly and make a study of the clouds floating by overhead. That one there is looking a bit gray; might be rain coming again. "Didn't mean to wake anyone," I mutter soon as I feel a little less mortified.
"It wasn't... it's none of my business."
"No, uh..." Damn. Why is it that every time Kore does stick her neck out, it's always across the points I don't want to talk about? I draw in a breath and say, "I just, uh. Miss folk. My family, mostly."
"The General?" she says in a very small voice.
Saint Anton's beard; so she noticed. "Something like."
"It's not... it's not the first time I heard. I mean. Once or twice. Wasn't listening for it or anything. Might've been my imagination."
I press a hand to the back of my neck and say, evenly as I might, "In the daytime, there's a damned lot of distracting things going on. Planning this meeting with the Duke, navigating the best route to these shores. At night there's not as many distractions."
She nods, just as cautiously. "Some men," she murmurs, "who got thoughts that keep them up at night, they turn to drink. Or to women."
I slam to a halt, staring at her, and Kore actually leaps back a few strides, her arms thrown over her head. "Not me, not me, I'd never with—I mean, I'm sure some woman would take you to husband, or in some other way, not—!"
"It's alright," I say, a smile tugging at my lips as I take up walking again. "If you say that's not what you meant, I believe you. And you are right; all kinds of right, I reckon. I'm just not the sort of man to turn to drink or women. I guess you could say... I'm the sort of man who turns to planning how to save a kingdom?"
Kore shakes her head harder than she needs to, giving me little cautious glances out of the corners of her eyes. "There's dicing," she mutters. "Or... fishing, you're fisherfolk. Swimming. Running. Ship-building."
"I'll consider it," I say. "Thanks for your concern."
The silence is all but unbearable as we continue along the castle wall, so after a solid minute of it I take a stab and say, "You aren't wearing any jewelry."
I guessed right; Kore stops looking so wary and just looks perplexed. "Don't usually. The Duchess offered."
"I just thought..." I gesture towards my neck and say, "you know, your island folk. The Sandborne. You said they all wore their wealth here."
Now she—looks annoyed, which hadn't been my aim at all. "I don't have any wealth that isn't borrowed, and I wouldn't wear it if I had any. Wouldn't be right, not after we left like we did. I'm not Sandborne any more."
"Oh," I wince. "I didn't mean... sorry. Um. By we do you mean us? Or, you and your, uh, husband?"
"Rilocrates and his brother. Kato. They're the ones... the Deadhead is theirs, really." She glances at me quick-like again, muttering, "You're better on the oars than Rilo ever was."
"Thanks," I say, more pleased than I would have thought I could be. "It means... thanks. She's a good boat." That almost brings a smile to her lips, and makes me bold enough to ask, "Your husband's brother, is he missing too?"
She lets out a long sigh, taking in the sight of the sea as we climb up a slope that brings us over a view of the city. "We docked at the beach by your town," she murmurs, "and they told me they would return by nightfall, with the supplies they could buy from the last of the goods we—borrowed. You met me a month later."
"A month?" I repeat, shocked. "Did someone take you in? What did you eat?"
Kore lifts her shoulders, says, "What I could find. I can fish a little; my cousin taught me when I was little. The innkeep was nice, and the woman who pulls the market wagon."
"Kore," I say, and wait until she glances up at me again. "I'm sorry that I didn't go into town sooner. I know you said that you wouldn't have asked me for help then, but—might be I would have found some way of doing it all the same. I'm sorry."
She smiles a little and says, "If I might speak my mind... I think this is better than any help you could have given then. A thousand, thousand times better."
Alim finds us out front of the inn that evening, watching the people who pass and making guesses about their stories to pass the time—Kore rattles off tales of doom and gloom; I talk about their families. From the look on Alim's face, pale and still, his luck ran even worse than ours had. I clasp a hand to his shoulder, about to offer some consoling sorts of words, when he blurts out, "I spoke with the Duke."
"You did? Will he see us?" I ask, surprised. Kore leans over on her barrel to peer at him around my shoulder.
"He—perhaps? I didn't—I didn't ask. Yet." Alim opens and shuts his mouth a few times, then says rather weakly, "I'm expected in his bedchambers tonight."
"Huh," I say, and squint at his ears.
That seems to snap him out of his daze somewhat. "What are you doing?" he snaps, too.
"Checking for blood," I reply.
"Sailor... my hatred knows no bounds."
A/N: Look at that, it's even a Wednesday.
Author's notes will be located on the blog (google livejournal, iceramyst.) As always, I appreciate comments, feedback, and encouragement as I make this new attempt at getting this story completed! Thank you for reading!