The first, piercing light of day hit sharply through the window of the wide bedroom, and Lyahn yawned, rolling over and stretching where she lay –

Her arm struck something warm, soft, close. She opened one bleary eye to see her sister facing her, and, she realised, mirroring her arrangement on the bed a few moments ago, curled into a semi-foetal position on her side, and found she had hit her sister in the fairly expansive chest.

She let out a grunt of protest, rolling one arm up over her breasts, a vague sleepy protection against another attack, and Lyahn smiled, watching her sister sleep, before sliding carefully out of the bed and putting on the shift she had dropped on the floor beside the bed.

She stood at the window, watching the sun rise over plain out to the west of the city, feeling an incredible sense of contentment, making her just want to lie down again, and go back to sleep, basking in the sun. But, as usual, her stomach had other ideas.

She tried to ignore it, and instead went looking for, and found, the small bathroom, admiring the plumbing. She used the facilities, amused and inspired by the way that water was piped from the cistern to sluice out the bowl, and she washed her hands over the drain, smiling at the ingenuity.

She sat down on the long, low couch in the main room, looking out the window, her sense of contentment increasing as she watched the sun breaking above the distant line of mountains that banded the plain. She picked up a thick, heavy tome that lay on the floor, and opened it, feeling the cover creak, as she began to read “Axioms of Nature”.

A few minutes later, with a quiet yawn, and a rustle of sheets, Ana got to her feet, and immediately spotted Lyahn lying on the couch, head propped up comfortably, reading, looking refreshed and comfortable.


Lyahn started, and craned her head around, dropping the tome immediately. “Hey, sis.”

“How did you sleep?”

“Honestly? That was the most comfortable night’s sleep I’ve had in a long time.”

Ana smiled. “Me too.”

There was a warm silence for a moment, but Lyahn broke it fairly quickly.

“So what’s going to happen today?”

“Dunno yet. The day plan only comes about now…”

With a chime, a small hopper near the door spat a bundle of papers onto the ground, and Ana whisked across the room to gather it up, slipping one sheet from near the top, tossing the rest onto the bed.

“Looks like a good day… you’ve got a press session at mid-day, a charity luncheon, three invitations for a dinner banquet, and the morning is nice and empty for us to pretty you up! How does that sound?”

The undisguised glee in her voice brought a sinking feeling in Lyahn’s gut. “It sounds, uh, great,” she said, resignedly, turning back to look out the window, eyebrows knitted together.

Ana looked momentarily shocked, then she remembered… “I’m so sorry, I keep thinking you’ve been doing this for your entire life, and you haven’t.”

“I’ve never had anyone tell me that they were going to pretty me up… and much less expected it to take a morning,” Lyahn mumbled, distantly. “I mean, I’ve read stories and so on, but it’s happening to someone else… it’s someone else’s life you’re living.”

“Well, now you’re a character in that book, sis,” said Ana, artfully manoeuvring her legs around Lyahn’s, and dropping to the couch. “You’re a character, about to go out into the upper city, to become one of those noble ladies, because you are the noble lady now!” Her smile was infectious, and Lyahn couldn’t help but let a small smile touch her face for just a moment.

“I suppose I am, now,” she said, then stood, looking down at Ana where she sat on the couch. “But there’s just one thing you need to know.”

“I’m listening.”

“When I’m Queen,” Lyahn began, then sighed, and continued, “the way I’ll rule will be because of my life, my experiences in the undercity.” She bowed her head. “Just as you don’t want to lose Mother’s trust, her memory, her way of life, I don’t want to lose mine.”

“That’s all right with me.” Ana sounded calm and compassionate, smiling up at her sister.

They sat down in the beauty parlour, together, Ana composed, Lyahn nervous.

“Don’t worry, sis. It won’t hurt at all, and it’s rather relaxing and fun,” Ana said, easing into the comfortable chair and sighing gratefully.

The group of attendants came over, all youngish women, wearing an odd, pink uniform that looked uncomfortably tight across chests and legs, but they moved comfortably, easily. “Welcome, highness. Welcome, my lady,” said the oldest of the women, standing slightly forward of the rest, bowing, and the rest of the women bobbed their own bows. “My name is Kashmehr, and I own this humble establishment. We are grateful for your presence,” she said, bowing again.

“I thank you, Lady Kashmehr,” said Ana, bobbing her head in a much less formal, but equally respectful bow. “My sister, the Lady Elchalyahn and myself are feeling very much in need of an adjustment. Perhaps the works, plus some dresswork?”

“It would be an honour, my lady Elanalivi.”

“Please, just call me Ana,” Ana demurred, and the lady bowed.

“Yes, my lady Ana,” Kashmehr said, but Ana shook her head again.

“We’re just Ana and Lyahn today. Nothing more, nothing less,” she said, smiling welcomingly, and the lady bowed again.

“Thank you, Ana, Lyahn. Now, I must leave to other pressing matters, but I am sure I can leave you in my daughters’ capable hands.”

“These women… they’re all your daughters?” The question burst from Lyahn’s lips, unbidden.

“Well, these three aren’t… but the rest all are,” she said, indicating the other seven. “All good workers, each and every one of them knowing how to make a woman look so beautiful they can break a man’s heart a million times over.” Ana blushed slightly at this.

“Exceptional hands, I am sure,” murmured Lyahn, trying to relax into the chair, seeing Ana’s ease, but something about the place set her on edge.

“Ana, you’ll be with Ka’lasha today,” said the older woman, smiling at one of the attendants, who moved to Ana’s side, swinging herself down onto a padded stool. “And for you, Lyahn, Iksh’aa will be your beautifier.”

Lyahn looked up at a woman with a long braid of almond-brown hair descending to her waist, her rounded face slightly flushed, one eyebrow arched exquisitely. “A pleasure to meet you, Iksh’aa,” she said quietly bowing her head to the woman.

“Have a good session, ladies,” Kashmehr called, retreating out the back door of the small shop.

“Let us begin with the hair,” said Ka’lasha.

Several hours later, Lyahn felt incredibly taut, stress and paranoia making her tight as a spring, much to the masseuse’s displeasure. She lay, face down on the form-fitting, padded massage bed.

“Relax, my lady. There is nothing like a massage to clear your mind,” said the nameless woman, hands kneading just below Lyahn’s shoulder blades, and she had to admit, it was incredibly relaxing and pleasurable – but still, she remained, nervous at having people touching and working her body, her hair, her face for the first time in her life.

“I’m trying,” she muttered, grumbling, trying to quiet her inner fear, to fill her body with relaxation, but failing miserably.

“I’m terribly sorry, my lady, but there is very little I can do that will not feel uncomfortably painful beyond this point,” said the woman a few moments later, hands pressed against the sway of her lower back.

“Well, I can take the pain,” grated Lyahn. “I’ve only had to live in the undercity all my life. You think I can’t take pain?”

“No, no, my lady,” the other woman hastily demurred. “I merely wish to draw your attention to the usually relaxing nature of the massage.”

“I will take the pain.”

“As you wish, my lady,” said the masseuse, beginning to firmly knead at the muscles of her lower back, eliciting a groan from Lyahn, although whether agony or euphoria, she couldn’t tell.

They returned to the palace, dressed in intricate robes.

The robes themselves had been a major issue for Lyahn; she couldn’t find anything that was as anywhere near as comfortable as her leathers, but relented and selected a handful of ceremonial dresses. Grumbling the whole time, she tried each on in turn, noting the quality and speed of the fitting and tailoring, but still loathing the entire process.

“I can’t wait to get these bloody things off me,” she growled as their palanquin moved through the wide, populated streets of the upper-city.

“And yet, sis, you’ve got to wear a dress for the rest of the day. You can’t go to the press conference wearing nothing, you know.” Ana’s voice was slightly mocking as she spoke, abrasive and harsh.

“It’d be more comfortable,” Lyahn grumbled under her breath, trying again in vain to get comfortable, the dozens of thick fabric layers interfering with her attempts to sit down. “Of that, I am absolutely certain.”

Ana pretended not to hear her comment, but smiled faintly.

Almost as soon as they disembarked and returned to their chambers, Lyahn made quick work of shucking her dress, leaving it in a puddle of fabric on the floor, stretching and sighing in her underclothes.

“Well, you need to put that on; the press meeting is in about fifteen minutes,” said Ana, sharply, and Lyahn groaned, flopping from her stretch.

The constant stream of curses and foul mutters resumed as Lyahn shuffled, jiggled and heaved her way back into the heavy dress, feeling incredibly stupid.

“Have you even seen yourself lately?” Ana’s voice drifted in through the preoccupation-induced blankness in Lyahn’s mind.

“No,” Lyahn muttered, before her shoulders were seized lightly and she was spun bodily to face the full-height mirror. “Knowing how this dress feels, I’ll look like a total – oh!”

The exclamation was enough to bring out Ana’s smile again, a smile showing her caring and understanding of her sister, as the girl stared at her own reflection in the mirror, admiring the way that the apparently heavy fabric accentuated her body, the thick seams making her look sharp, professional and, oddly, regal.

“See? You look fantastic,” Ana said, floating over her shoulder, grinning like a Cheshire Cat, and Lyahn had to admit that she was right – she did look fantastic. “Look, you need to look your best as the Queen, and if you can’t do that, there goes your first good shot at being the ruler.”

“I suppose… for our city, I could put up with this,” murmured Lyahn, swaying to and fro slightly, admiring the swing of the layers of fabric, belling out slightly from her hips.

“Come on, let’s make friends and influence people.”