Lyahn sagged, exhausted by the efforts of the day. She stripped off the long, heavy dress, feeling the line of her shoulders trying to even again, and hoping that they would do so soon. She yawned hugely.
“I wonder what they decide to write about you,” said Ana, standing in the room-size wardrobe, looking for another pair of dresses.
“I can’t even believe that today isn’t over yet,” moaned Lyahn. “I mean, I’m fit enough to run messages between each of the Noble Houses faster than they work their way down to the undercity and back up again, but this is ridiculous.” She squirmed somewhat in the tight-fitting corsetry, trying in vain to find another comfortable position.
“I know, sis, but this is a different sort of fitness, one which you can’t prepare for by running around all day.” Ana chuckled. “Have you seen me running around, then?” She softened, and made her way out of the cupboard, to see her sister, standing in the middle of the room, looking glum, wearing only her underclothes again. “I’m sorry, sis, but this is just the way things are done up here. It’s a vicious world, here, and if you slip, if you fumble, you’re tossed to the proverbial Na’khai who will tear you apart in an instant.”
Ana hugged her sister close, trying to empathise with her, trying to instil her with a fresh dose of enthusiasm and confidence, and after a moment, it seemed to work.
“Now, let’s get you ready for the dinner, then, shall we? You don’t have to worry yourselves about what they’re printing, because every House has observers in the press to make sure we aren’t slandered. That’s why we call it the ‘free press’ – it’s free of disgusting people writing disgusting stories.” Ana tossed Lyahn a new dress, one that glittered brightly in the mid-afternoon sunlight, and Lyahn noted just how much lighter the dress was.
“Well, this is better! Why didn’t you just give me this dress to begin with?” Lyahn sounded scandalised, then slightly muffled as she slipped her way easily into it. “It’s so much lighter and airier than that mountain of hessian sacking, and trust me, I know exactly what hessian sacking feels like, and that was exactly it.”
“You needed to be seen to be fashionable, sis. Wearing a formal dress as you were announced the next Queen of Kihedra, and a dress that shows you have some idea about the latest fashions, too. This style is all the rage in the Noble Houses, these days.” Ana slid into her dress, a dark, full-length dress, fairly unadorned, as she spoke. “And the reason you have a light dress now is that this is much more comfortable to dance in.”
“Yes! Not only are you now the Queen and all, you’re a young woman who needs to be married off quickly to someone nice and powerful. Weddings around here are mostly political gestures from one House to another. Father, for instance, used to be in House Elysmos before he married Mother, and that aligned Elysmos closely with the throne, a good political move for everyone.”
“Dance?” repeated Lyahn, her voice flat.
“You’re going to dance with some of the most eligible bachelors in the city tonight,” Ana said, her eyes bright. “I know the first time I went to one of these balls, Mother insisted I had to dance with someone from every house…” Her eyes misted over, and a slight blush coloured her cheeks.
“I can’t dance!”
“Rubbish,” said Ana. “Everyone can dance – you learn it the same way you learn how to read and how to write. And I’ve seen you dancing.”
“Ana… I learned to read and write as well as the next person – but I never learned to dance! I cannot dance at all.”
Ana looked shocked, scandalised – and she made a series of sounds suggesting she was choking momentarily. “You never learned…? So what were you doing yesterday?”
“When I …,” began Ana, then stopped, scrabbling desperately for a set of words that were less awkward, but she couldn’t find any, gave up and continued. “Uh, when I tried to kill you.”
“Oh, that. That’s how I fight… it’s just my technique. I mean, I could fight everyone, but I might forget and accidentally kill a few people.”
Ana chuckled, but then was serious. “Everyone is expecting you to dance tonight with someone from House Eluna… and if you can’t dance, well…”
“Well, what?” Lyahn looked anxious, and slightly irritated.
“Well, it might undo everything we did today. Absolutely everything we did, trying to make you look like the best possible leader for Kihedra, the most talented woman possible… and if you can’t dance, so help me.”
The palanquin stopped, and they stepped out, both looking regal, seeing the crowd gathered to either side of the long stripe of blue-green carpet extending from the road to the door.
“I really don’t like this,” muttered Lyahn through clenched teeth, smile firmly fixed in position. “I really, really don’t like this.”
“Relax,” murmured Ana out of the corner of her mouth as they strolled down the carpet, the crowd applauding as they passed. “You’ll do fine. Just don’t fudge any of the steps I showed you and you’ll be fine.”
“I’m telling you, I don’t like this at all. I feel like tonight will go really badly wrong,” said Lyahn, dropping the smile as soon as they entered the cavernous, well-lit lobby, the gross echoing of their voices swallowed by the sound of running water from long, intricate water features. Almost no-one else was there, except a few serving-maids. “Just chalk it up to my intuition, but there’s something odd here, something slightly amiss.”
“Come on, Lyahn, you’ll just spoil a good party. You’ll enjoy this, I promise. You’ll really enjoy this,” coached Ana, trying desperately to keep them both sane.
Lyahn relented, but kept a watchful eye on her surroundings, even as she entered the main party.
“Someone’s watching me,” said Lyahn, trying hard not to look panicked.
“Yes, there are almost a hundred people watching you. You’re the bloody Queen, sis… you’re expecting people not to be watching you?” Ana tried to laugh it off, but Lyahn shook her head.
“Someone’s watching me from behind me, above me.”
“Yes, that’s the guards,” Ana said. “Look, you’re getting paranoid. Just relax!”
“If I had a mark for every time someone had said ‘just relax’ to me today, I’d be the richest woman in Kihedra.”
“You already are, sis. Come on, let’s go meet the delegation.”
Lyahn sat in the chair by the side of the dance floor, a small table beside her, upon which rested a small goblet of wine. Every now and then, she would take a small sip of wine, as she watched couples and groups whirl around to the music. Ana was out there, and occasionally Lyahn saw her, each time on the arm of another man, smiling and laughing the whole time as she flashed by, spinning back into the crowd. She looked up to see the speaker, a young, handsome man with heavy brows from under which he looked out with eyes that twinkled with laughter, and a smile that induced a frisson down her spine. By the insignia on his chest, he was from House Elsolara.
“Good evening,” she murmured, dipping her head in acknowledgement of his presence, fighting to keep herself from blushing.
“My name is Ai’shlaan-prokt-Elsolara,” he said, bowing in return. “It is a pleasure to meet you at last, your majesty. We have heard so much about you… about how you grew up on the streets and how you lived outside the city.”
Lyahn nodded, waiting for him to continue.
“What was it like?”
The question had come up a dozen or more times this evening. What was it like? What had it been like? How could these coddled nobles with their ball-dances and their heart-stone dresses even know what it was like, not knowing where the next meal or the next attack would be coming from.
“It was hard. It was very hard,” said Lyahn, using the general-purpose reply that she had been using for the question every time it had been put to her. The young man standing before her nodded his understanding, or what he thought was his understanding, built on a thick and delicate fabric of lies, woven of false stories of the undercity.
“Living outside the city… would you change that for anything?”
Hmm. Not a question she had been expecting. But still, she turned out the stock answer. “I can’t say I enjoyed doing it, but if I had the choice, I wouldn’t do anything differently. The things I learned, the ways I learned them… I wouldn’t give it up for anything. They shape who I am, who I will be, and how I’ll lead this city.”
“Yes, your majesty, I read the papers too,” he chuckled. “I really want to know, though. I know you probably think of us all as hidden from what happens in the undercity, but I really want to know. What was it actually like? How did you live?”
“Do you really want to know?” Lyahn’s question held a warning tone.
“Yes, I do, actually.”
“Imagine running for a few hours every day just to earn a few half-marks for food. Imagine wondering who around you is trying to kill you, take the message that you carry – your life depends on it arriving safely. Imagine not eating for two days and having to keep running messages, trying to save just to buy new shoes,” Lyahn said, voice acidly harsh, bitingly real, weaving the story of the streets. “I lived my life like that for four years, wondering where the next challenge would be coming from. I lived in one of the abandoned low-huts outside the city walls. This time two days ago, I was wondering when I should next eat. This time yesterday, I was fighting for my life. Today, I’m wondering why my dress is so uncomfortable.”
“Four… four years of starvation, and work…?”
“Oh, and I got attacked a few times,” she said, matter-of-factly, showing the puckered, blue-white scar high on her forearm. “The bandits and the mercenaries, they don’t really care about collateral damage, and sometimes they don’t mind taking a few extra bodies with them.” There were more scars, of course, but she wasn’t about to disrobe to show them. Even so, the effect on him was exactly what she’d hoped for: the expression of shock on Ai’shlaan’s face was almost endearing, and she found she liked it a lot more than she thought she should. She hid it all behind a smirk. “Not what you expected, is it?”
“Uh… no, your majesty,” he stammered. “But you must have laudable strength of spirit to be able to just survive all those experiences, everything that your life has thrown at you so far.”
Hearing it for the compliment it was trying to be, and not the fumbling wreckage of language that it was, she smiled. “Thank you,” she said, a slight hint of colour touching her cheeks, but she continued in a serious tone. “Genuinely, I want to use all I know, all I learned from living my life in the undercity to be a better Queen, and a better ruler for my city – and that’s Lyahn, troubled girl of the undercity speaking, not Elchalyahneldera, the girl Queen of Kihedra, by the way.”
He chuckled again, weakly, looking distressed by what he had heard. “Nonetheless, your majesty, much as I find the adventures of Lyahn shocking and distressing, I find them oddly appealing, too,” he said, and she cocked her head to one side, waiting for him to continue. “I’ve always felt there was something more to life than being up here, lord of all we survey.”
Lyahn nodded in agreement. “There is something you’re missing up here, I suppose. You need to see how everyone else lives, without your balls and dresses and tailors and …”
She trailed off, staring across the dance floor, over the milling heads.
“What is it, your majesty?” The concern in his voice was palpable, and again, she ruthlessly suppressed the burst of emotion that filled her, becoming cold, calculating, aware. The same feeling she had on the streets, where, like oceans, lack of skill would leave one drifting, if not drowned.
“I… I just saw… something,” she muttered vaguely, sitting down painfully slowly, eyes narrowed, searching across the room again.
She looked at him, glancing upwards, and with an exclamation of adrenalin-induced shock, she jumped forwards instinctively, grabbing him by the midriff, as the heavy chandelier fell, seemingly taking forever, to where she had been sitting, just moments before.