I woke late in the morning. Fiena sat beneath the window, the heavy curtains open just enough to bathe her in the overly bright morning light whilst she altered one of my dresses and her impossibly neat braids shone red where the sunlight touched them.
“I’m getting fat,” I observed from the bed.
“Nonsense,” she replied looking up with a smile. “You’ve just been around the castle a bit more recently than normal.”
“At the tavern, don’t you mean?”
“Well, yes,” she was amused. “More nights than not.”
“Akyran’s in a mood,” I told her. “He likes to ease it with hunting and ale.”
“And you, my lady?” She teased. “Are you in a mood?”
I laughed. “Well, I can’t let him drink alone, can I? There’s no harm to a bit of ale.”
“Except to my fingers from altering your dresses,” she replied. “But the prince likes a bit of a curve on a woman.”
I sighed. “Akyran doesn’t see me that way,” I told her.
“Mmm,” she set the sewing to the side. “Shall I run your bath?”
Perhaps if I looked more like the courtesans he favoured, Akyran might finally see me as more than Ecaeris his friend. My lifestyle, however, saw me missing more meals than I ate. If we were not hunting, or fighting, we were riding... Perhaps if I spent more time in courtly pursuits, I thought, as I sat up. But spending hours listening to bards and eating sweet meats, sewing embroidery, or playing cards with dignified reserve held no appeal.
I was a war mage, after all, it was my nature to battle, I preferred to be on the move, rather than sitting still, the harder and more daring the adventure, the better.
I bathed and stood in the dressing room with Fiena and Tillie, scrutinizing my clothing. They regarded it as a serious occupation, whereas I found it more a frustration. Court fashions came and went like the seasons. It was a never-ending task to keep up with which type of sleeve and what manner of embellishment was current in vogue, and which were not.
I, on the other hand, liked what I liked, and knew what I did not like, and my wardrobe choices reflected that regardless of the vagaries of court fashion. The current fashion at the Court of Light was featherlight and sheer fabrics in tiered pale colours, floating from fragile shoulder clasps, or woven into bodices, whereas my personal choices were more dark jewel tones, in order to hide the blood stains that accompanied most of my activities, in heavier fabrics for better wear, and minimal embellishment and undergarments. And usual tunics and trousers rather than dresses.
Presenting well in court, however, was a requirement, and that meant finding a middle ground between personal preference and fashion on occasions such as this.
“You should wear a dress,” Fiena said hopefully. “It is court, after all.”
“I’ll wear a dress tonight,” I wanted to wear that dress. From the moment I had seen the fabric, I had wanted that dress. I wondered what Akyran would make of it. Even he would have to notice me in that dress.
“Yes, but that’s that dress and tonight,” Fiena replied. “You should wear the dark blue today,” she drew it out, flaring it over her arm.
“Very well,” I did not mind the blue. It was cut severely, high necked, and buttoned up the front which allowed me to leave a few buttons undone at the throat. It was the feminine version of how Akyran dressed and from his tailor, one of the random gifts he gave to me when the mood struck him, or something caught his eye. Normally a gift from Akyran was a weapon, or armour, but he had been expanding to clothing and trinkets recently. “The blue it is.”
They knew better than to try an elaborate hairstyle, quickly winding the hair back from my face and binding it behind so it would not fall forwards into my eyes.
Dressed to all our satisfaction, I left them to pack.
The hall would normally be overflowing with feasters attending the king, but in his absence, Akyran sat at the head table, and oversaw a room empty but for a handful of minor Lords currying his favour, and the servants that attended them. I sat to Akyran’s left, in the seat he normally occupied when his father was present.
“You’re wearing a dress,” he commented, serving me a cut of the pastry that sat before him. “One I bought you.”
“I like this one and my maids tell me a dress is appropriate.”
“Hmm,” he slid a look at me under his eyelashes. “The colour is good.”
“Thank you,” I was pleased he noticed. It was not the first time I had worn the dress around him, however, and I wondered why, today, it was something he found worth of commenting on.
“It’s not what you’re wearing tonight, are you?” he added.
“No,” I cut a bite of the pastry. “I have an evening dress for tonight.”
“Jewels,” he chewed his mouthful.
I frowned at him, wondering at his sudden interest. “I guess,” I agreed. “The dress doesn’t need them, however.”
He raised his eyebrows. “You sound like a girl,” he observed.
“I am a girl,” I reminded him, pointedly.
“Yes,” he replied, a flush touching his cheeks. “But you sound like a girl, girl.”
“What do girls sound like?” I wondered.
“Dresses that don’t need jewels. Like they’re sentient.”
I frowned at him. “Why are we discussing dresses and jewels, Akyran?” I asked him.
“I don’t know,” he replied with exasperation. “I guess because... if you look the part, Ecaeris, they’ll leave me be.”
I stared at him. What part, I wanted to ask, but I feared shattering the delicate hope that had blossomed at his words. “I’ll get Fiena to pack some jewels if you think it necessary, Akyran.”
“Thank you,” he was relieved I wasn’t asking any awkward questions. “Can you ride in that dress?” he added. “I had thought we’d play a round of chovgan this afternoon.”
“I’ll make sure Fiena packs something appropriate,” I replied, reaching across him to spear some baked fish onto my plate. “I’d hate for you to blame me wearing a dress for your loss.”
“Our loss,” he corrected.
“I won’t lose,” I replied archly. “I might be on the losing team, but my personal performance won’t be at fault...”
“Haha,” he sneered with enjoyment. “Only because you cheat, mage.”
“I am completely honourable with my magic,” I retorted and tugged some strands of his hair free as I stood.
“Ow,” he complained, his hand coming to his head, scowling. “What was that for?”
“Royal harlot’s hair is a very useful spell component,” I replied.
“I am not a harlot,” he grumbled, following me from the table.
“I’m on the other side of the wall from your bedchamber,” I reminded him. “Oh, Akyran, oh, oh. Oh.”
He flushed. “There is no way you can hear through the stone, Ecaeris.”
“Oh, Akyran,” I replied, my voice rising hitching, breathy. “Do that thing... What thing exactly?”
“Ecaeris,” the colour patched on his cheeks. “Shit,” he muttered under his breath.
“Maybe close your windows,” I suggested. “Lady Beria in particular...”
“Ecaeris,” his voice held a warning. “That is...”
“Mmhmm.” I waited a breath. “Akyran, like a stallion...!”
“- Ecaeris,” he groaned, the flush on his cheeks brilliant. I giggled. For a moment we walked in companionable silence and then: “You aren’t really going to use my hair...” he added.
I held up my hand, showing that I still clutched the dark strands.
“Ecaeris,” he protested, “give me that.”
I snatched up my skirts and ran through the hallways, with him in pursuit, sending pages and servants scattering in our wake as we careened around corners and dashed up staircases. I managed to keep just beyond his grasp as we began the sprint along the long hallway to our bedchambers, but he caught me along the wall between our chambers, about where his bed was positioned, and we wrestled until he pinned my wrists against the wall above my head as he retrieved the stolen strands from my grip.
“These are going into the fire,” he said, severely, breathless from the pursuit. His eyes darkened as he looked down at me, and for a moment, I thought there was a flash of heat... and then he pulled back, and it was gone, leaving me wondering if it were ever there in the first place or just wishful thinking on my behalf.
“An hour,” he said to me over his shoulder.
“That should give me long enough to find some jewellery,” I replied.
Fiena and Tillie had converted my chambers into chaos, with chests overflowing with clothing and the bed strewn with undergarments and accessories, the floor lined with shoes. I had not even known I owned so many.
“It’s just a night or two,” I protested, knowing I argued fruitlessly. “Not those shoes,” I nudged a pair with my toes. “They were agony to wear. One of you can have them, if they fit. Or sell them, donate them, whatever you do with such things.”
If I had said I was going hunting with Akyran for a week, there would be less fuss. I would throw a couple of changes of trousers and shirts into a bag and be done, but two or so nights at the Court of Light, and, apparently, I needed to take every item I owned with me.
I slid back out the door and went to Akyran’s room. Things were less chaotic there – neat piles of shirts, tunics and trousers folded already in a chest, formal wear laid out across the bed, and no shoes or accessories in sight. Akyran raised his eyebrows at me as Ithyles buttoned his shirt sleeves.
I sat on his bed. “Fiena has turned my chambers upside down,” I complained. “You would think I were leaving them forever from what she’s packing. I should get Ithyles to pack for me in future.”
Akyran and Ithyles exchanged a long-suffering look.
“Hopefully, she’ll pack some jewels,” Akyran muttered.
“What is your sudden obsession with my adornments?” I complained.
“Rivyn has a pregnant wife,” he replied, irritably. “It means my parents look for me to do the same. If I can distract them with you covered in baubles, Ecaeris, I will do so, gladly, even if I have to put the baubles on you, myself.”
I muttered under my breath.
“What was that?” he asked as Ithyles held his jacket up for him to shrug into.
“Nothing,” I replied, sulkily. I had said that I would much rather he showed me what a stallion did that made Lady Beria shriek in such a way, than hang a king’s ransom of jewels around my neck, but it wasn’t something I could repeat audibly.
As he finished dressing, there was a knock at the door, and Ithyles opened it to admit a rather flustered looking Fiena.
“We are ready, my lady,” she told me, unsurprised to find me lounging on Akyran’s bed waiting. “Your chests have been transferred.”
“Oh, good,” Akyran said drolly. “Let’s go.”
In the main hall, near the front door, the overlarge, elaborately framed mirror-portal allowed perpetual transition from one court to the other. It had been a wedding gift from King Treyvin to Queen Leamoira, a symbolic linking of the two courts as their marriage had done in reality for the first time in thousands of years. I could cast Akyran and I a portal, but it would be a waste of spell components when the way lay so readily available.
He offered me his arm, and I placed my hand upon it before we stepped through together.