Equilibrium

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38: Groundwork

Larke, 1182

I stood alone in my old room, thankfully granted privacy to get dressed in the elaborate gown that was my disguise tonight. The dress itself was a wonder – the A-line cut was so long, it would cover the entire lengths of my legs, which was a feat in of itself. At my height, I always had problems with pants and dresses never being long enough. The bodice was tight, strapless, with a sweetheart neckline speckled with gold-threaded embroidery in intricate designs. The designs continued and faded into the cream colored chiffon of the skirt. Though strapless, it still covered my worst scars, apart from the one on my forearm. I had been able to step into the dress by myself, but I would definitely need help tightening the corset ties on the back of the bodice.

I had put my hair up in a simple braid, as I often did, but quickly decided that would be too plain for such a magnificent dress. I had to fit in with the other noble ladies, of course, and they would be wearing such elaborate clothing, jewelry, and hairstyles that I would look out of place. Undoing my usual hairstyle, I re-braided the strands into two twin French braids, which I then wrapped around my head in an extricate braided crown, creating a beautiful and functional updo. I carefully placed a few loose strands of hair over my temple, covering the small bump and scar I’d earned from my previous escapades.

Pleased, I spun, holding the loose bodice close to my chest, and watched the skirt flare out as I did so, the ruffle of petticoats a quiet whisper. The dress also came with a pair of cream colored flats. While I was already severely restricted while wearing a dress this delicate, I didn’t need to make it worse by wearing uncomfortable shoes. I was there on a mission, after all. And because of that fact, I had expertly attached several daggers to my upper thigh by a strap, just in case. A girl can’t be too careful. I was mostly ready, just needing the bodice to be secured. I considered trying to do it myself, but I could only reach the lower sections. I needed another pair of hands.

“Dean?” I called out, rising my voice so that he would hear me through the thin walls.

He was getting dressed next door, in his room. I pouted; his outfit was surely less restrictive than mine.

A muffled, “Yes?”

“Can you help me tighten this? I can’t reach,” I asked, slightly embarrassed.

Last time I had asked him to do something because I couldn’t reach, I was naked in a bathtub, trying to seduce him. Somehow, even though I was fully clothed, this felt more personal and vulnerable. I heard another muffled reply, which I hoped was an affirmative response, because I really did need his help.

It must have been, because a few seconds later, he knocked on the door.

“You can come in,” I said quietly.

He opened the door, and stopped, looking at me. I was facing the wall, my back to him, and I looked over my shoulder to watch him stare at me. He did so with no expression on his face, the perfect gentleman, betraying no emotions.

“What do you need?” he asked, his voice barely above a whisper.

I turned my head away from him, the heat rushing to my cheeks, and gestured as best as I could to the laces on my back. He must’ve understood, because I heard him approach and soon felt his warm hands on my waist.

“Tell me if I’m pulling too tight,” he said, grasping at the lower laces.

Methodically, he tightened them, one by one, and I focused on breathing evenly. It wasn’t the tightening of the laces that restricted my breathing, though. His closeness, his gentle, firm hands, his soft breath on the back of my neck was throwing me off balance. It was torture.

He finished and stepped back. I turned around, and for the first time, noticed what he was wearing. He had a thick, black coat, long enough to reach down to his thighs, edged with geometrical golden embroidery not unlike the ones on my dress. Underneath it he wore a deep black vest, with similar style of embroidery, paired with black trousers and boots. He looked regal, and though he wore different colors than me, he matched in a complementary manner. If my dress was an evening star, his outfit was the infinitely deep, dark sky that held it. My intense examination must have made him feel uncomfortable, because he shuffled his feet and shifted his attention elsewhere.

“I’m almost ready,” I said, quickly snatching up a heavy, fur shawl to cover my shoulders.

The Naga were certainly very thorough when they’d obtained this entire outfit for me. I wasn’t sure what kind of fur it was made from, but whatever the animal had been, it was very soft and light colored. I draped it around my shoulders and held it tight in front of my waist, securing it closed.

“Okay,” I said, “now we can go.”

He held out his hand for me to take, which I did, and he led me out of the room. We walked out of the manor to the front pathway, where a carriage was waiting. The two men I’d seen in the briefing, whose names I still didn’t know, were waiting atop it, ready to drive us to the ball.

The evening was imminent, twilight falling over the city as we stood outside. The air was already becoming brisk, making me shiver despite the thick fur shawl I wore around my bare shoulders. I took in a deep breath, savoring the last moments I would spend here. I appreciated the scents, fresh, cold air burning my nostrils, sweet and clean, unlike the heavy and crowded energy that you felt in the inner city. If I were successful, then I would never see this place again. And, if I wasn’t, then I doubted I’d be allowed to live to see it. I stood inside the doorway, both in and out, hovering on the threshold, just as the sun was hovering on the horizon. When I stepped forward, I would be stepping towards the castle, towards my betrayal, towards everything that I feared.

I whispered to myself, ‘there is no bravery without fear’. And fear, I certainly felt, though I couldn’t pinpoint exactly why. I’d been a spy before, I’ve committed horrific acts before, and they never bothered me then like they are right now. But I’d failed at compartmentalizing. Before this mission, I was easily able to step into a role, slip on the mask, dissociate and accomplish whatever gruesome task required of me. But this time, the mask had failed. It’d been ripped off, my true face exposed, and they’d kept me even still.

My brief silent musings had me lost in thought, pausing at the doorway, resulting in a huff of impatience from Dean. He was already standing next to the carriage, waiting to help me in like a perfect gentleman. Spenser must have already been inside. Though he was supposed to pose as a servant, he must have convinced the others that he should ride inside rather than on top. If anyone were capable of persuading somebody of that fact, it was him. I didn’t relish the thought of sharing the carriage ride with the two men who disliked each other.

“Come on,” Dean said, waving me closer, “we don’t have all night.”

I nodded, and quickly strode to the carriage. He took my hand, grasping my fingers lightly as I climbed the steps inside. It was tastefully simple, upholstered in soft red velvet, lined with delicate stitching. I brushed my fingers over the cushions, absentmindedly taking comfort in the sensation. Spenser sat quietly on the opposite side, watching me carefully. I peeked outside the window, bidding a silent goodbye to the manor, though I saw a shabby cottage instead, thanks to Dean’s illusions. As it had the first time I’d entered, the false cottage awoke an old memory, feeling both familiar and not at the same time.

Before Dean entered, I heard him ask, “Everything loaded?”

“Yes sir, the hidden compartments in the back are filled to the brim,” replied a business-like voice coming from one of the men propped on the top, ready to drive.

“Drive carefully, then,” he warned, settling in the spot available next to me.

The carriage felt positively cramped now, and I squeezed my hands together, knuckles white, trying to calm myself. A snap of the reins later, and the reluctant draft horse pulling us began to meander down the road. The wheels against the cobble stones made a pleasing sound, a rhythm paired with the horse’s hooves inducing a feeling of repetitive calm. It did little to soothe my nerves, however. Despite the amount of training I’d completed over the years, the experience I’d gained, and the confidence as a result, a covert mission such as this always made me anxious. I just had to remember to use it to my advantage, to twist the paranoia into a weapon, anticipating the worst outcomes and preventing them. I took another deep breath, steadying my erratic heartbeat.

Spenser stared at me, while Dean stared out the window at nothing, ignoring us both. I stared back at him, our blank expressions matching. In a few hours, we would be in front of the King spilling our secrets. Spenser had been helpful, feeding me information that I wouldn’t have uncovered by myself. I would honor our agreement and ask the King to reward him kindly. But, I decided, if I had to sever my connection to him to save myself, then I would.

The carriage ride was longer than I expected, but finally, we reached the castle walls. Now, it was time to put on the charade. The walls seemed impossibly high and were famous for being impenetrable. Although, there are ways around walls. When King Zante Urion conquered the Rynish capital twenty-five years ago, those same tall walls meant nothing against his Suryan Mages. But he couldn’t owe it all to the Mages. He had some inside help that opened the gate to him, welcoming the scourge that was his army. It was something politely ignored at court, as the queen would execute anyone who dare bring up her traitorous acts. It’s terrifying, what some people will do for love.

I could see out the window, and night had fallen on the city. The path leading towards the gate was well lit by small lanterns edging the road. As the stars appeared in the sky, the soft glow of these lanterns made the road itself look magical, awash with gold.

Our carriage was one of a long line, each waiting to be admitted into the castle grounds. There were several guards at the gate, unsurprisingly. The Raven had expected there would be, as had everyone else. I fidgeted, hoping the guards would accept that we were the ambassadors from Sok. A part of me wasn’t ready to resume my identity as High Suryan Premiere. I wanted to be myself for just a little bit longer.

Our carriage inched forward, and one by one, the carriages in front of us dwindled and we approached the heavily guarded gate. As we got closer, we all sat tensely, and examined the front gate leading to the castle. It was tall, covered with a large wooden door that opened with the hinges from the bottom. Although the castle didn’t have a filled moat anymore, the front gate was meant to bridge such a defensive feature. Two guards were stationed at the gate, confirming identities before the guests could proceed. We would have to fool them sufficiently. If not, I would have to reveal myself as High Suryan Premiere, and they would let us through. Our carriage was next to be inspected.

The two guards, one on either side of the carriage, examined us with narrowed eyes.

“Ambassadors from the Kingdom of Sok?” the one on my side questioned, “Really?”

He peered through the window, and I saw the recognition on his face. He raised his eyebrows and parted his lips to speak. But, before he could exclaim and blow my cover, I interrupted him.

“Yes, sir. Please, lean closer,” I whispered.

He complied, a puzzled look on his face.

“I know you recognize me,” I breathed, more softly than before. “The King has decreed that you allow us to enter and work undisturbed,” I said haughtily. “This is a top secret mission, so don’t let anyone know we’re here.” I sat back in my seat and stared forward, as if he had already agreed to my demands.

To my relief, he stepped back, and waved us forward.

His partner on the other side looked confused, and the man waved us on again, more enthusiastically this time. He gave his partner a glare. I smiled; this had gone well. I had granted them access with minimal effort, as well as the ability to roam the castle, unquestioned. I looked over at Dean, who was staring ahead, eyes blank and expression empty. Allowing them to explore the castle was my parting gift. It wouldn’t matter anyway. Information truly was the greatest weapon one could have.

The carriage lurched forward, carrying us to the castle proper. The towers were as magnificent as I remembered, thick, pale gray stone looming over us. Each parapet was placed just so, the large, open staircase that lead directly into the main reception hall greeted us with more of the soft lanterns lighting the way. People milled at the feet of the stairs, carriages dropping off their occupants. Women in extravagant dresses loitered on the steps, meandering slowly up them on the arms of equally extravagantly dressed men. I only hoped that we would fit in well enough. I clenched and un-clenched my fists, worrying about the evening.

We eventually reached the bottom of the grand staircase, and it was our turn to dismount. It jerked to a halt; the horse stopped suddenly. A whinny was accompanied by stomping on the roof. The drivers must be climbing down to help us disembark. I waited until somebody opened my door for me, as etiquette suggests. The driver had placed the steps just below my door, while Spenser had exited from the other side to assist me down. I climbed out, delicately placing my toes on the step, balancing lightly on the balls of my feet. I felt like a magical princess, and while I didn’t often get to behave like a pampered royal, I certainly enjoyed it. My usual attire was light armor, so it was a nice change of pace to feel beautiful.

And feel beautiful, I did. My large dress billowed out around me, sparkling in the soft lantern light. Spenser stared up at me, en-rapt, and that’s how I knew I looked as beautiful as I felt. The look in his eyes was nothing short of astonishment. My cheeks heated. As a Suryan Mage, even a High Suryan Premiere, I am usually a part of the background, a quiet presence ensuring peace and safety, not a jewel on display.

Spenser held out his hand and helped me the rest of the way down, bowing his head as I reached the ground. Dean exited next, with less fanfare than I. I suppose as a man, you’re expected to be capable enough to get out of a carriage by yourself. Although if I were allowed to wear sturdy boots, pants, and not this extremely tight bodice and puffy skirt, I would have no problem either. We exchanged looks, Dean and I, and he held out his elbow to escort me, as expected. Spenser bowed to us again, keeping up the act of being a manservant, and climbed back into the carriage. He gave me one last look, full of meaning.

“You gentlemen be careful out there,” I said, warning them and eyeing Spenser meaningfully.

“We will,” Spenser said. “Enjoy your evening.”

He shut the carriage door, and the drivers prompted the horse to walk.

The horse ambled down the path towards where the carriages were to be stowed for the night. I hoped that Spenser would be able to leave them easily, otherwise I’d be forced to leave him behind. Of course, I could always request that he be extracted per order of the King, once I saw him again. This evening should be a breeze.

Dean and I began our climb, each step bringing us closer to our destiny.

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