Chapter One From a Sow's Ear...
She lay there in the dry grass for what seemed like an eternity; the sharp green blades digging into her bare skin. She was on her side, her knees drawn up to her chest in an unconscious attempt to cover her nudity. There was no one around to see it, to see her, but she still felt eyes on her. She sat up slowly, hugging herself in an attempt to fend off the chill that worked its way up her spine. There was no telling if the gentle breeze or the feeling of those hidden eyes caused the tremors that shook her slender form.
Finally, in an attempt to muster a shred of sanity, she took in her surroundings. Above her the sky was clear, if one could call the mix of gold, silver, and blue hues a sky. In it were two suns, or perhaps a sun and a moon, as one shone a brilliant golden-yellow and the other shimmered with a pearly inner silver fire. Those silver, gold, and blue hues that danced across the sky were not clouds, they never blocked either the sun or the moon, but more resembled a fine mist. Every now and then darts of a darker gold or silver could be seen gliding through the shimmering veil.
To her left was a cheerful and brightly lit forest of trees, possibly evergreens, of a nearly black color with needles a deep bronze shade. She could just make out tiny scarlet birds of some sort bouncing through their boughs like living jewels. Another strange form of creature wound their way through and across the branches. They were the size of a house cat and boasted a slightly reptilian form. Every so often they would reach out with nimble hand-like paws and pluck several needles from a branch. Then, they would sit back on their haunches and slowly, almost daintily, eat each one separately.
To her right was a forest that completely contradicted the one to her left. It was drab, dull, and lifeless. The trees were gray and mostly bare of any leaves, the bark of their trunks and limbs cracked and scarred. The grass that grew beneath them was tall, dry, and brittle looking. It, too, was a sickly grayish color, with a few patches of an equally sickly looking yellow spread throughout. Then the grasses near the edge twitched and parted as the head a creature poked its nose out. It scrambled a few inches free of the grass then sat on its haunches watching her. Its large ears flipped back and forth, up and down, so much that she thought it just might be able to take flight. Then, with a loud squeal, it bounded to its feet and darted back into the grasses, its whip-like tail flagging behind it.
She turned back to the bronze forest, the feeling of eyes on her becoming even stronger. This time... this time there was something watching her. Two men, sitting astride some sort of slime coated reptiles, stood at the edge of the forest. They stared at her with glittering black eyes and sneered. One sported a fresh set of claws marks across his face, of which oozed dark blood. The other seemed to have bathed in the same slime that his mount dripped. Suddenly, that warm and inviting forest was not so warm and inviting. But, neither was the bleak grove at her back.
One of the beasts lifted its head and snuffled at the air; its nostrils flaring and sending droplets of slime splattering to the ground. The other beast made a weak coughing whine and stretched its long neck out, tugging at the reins its rider gripped firmly. The two men looked briefly over their shoulders then, digging their heels savagely into their mounts' sides, made their way toward her. One of them stopped in front of her while the other turned his mount to face the forest they had just left. The one that had stopped before her dropped to the ground and strode forward. He snapped out something in a language she didn't know and grabbed her by the arm.
When she jerked back he snarled and struck her across the face with his other hand. The other man glanced over his shoulder and chuckled, talking in the same unknown language. She scrambled to her feet, trying not to uncover her breasts, as the two of them talked. The one on the ground glanced back at her and snarled, striding forward to grab a handful of her hair and shoving her towards his mount. She thrust her hands out in front of her to catch herself as she fell against it. The slime on its skin made catching her balance impossible and she slid to the ground, falling halfway beneath the beast.
The two men hooted with laughter, the one on the ground with her landed a kick to her ribs and she cried out. A hand wrapped around her ankle and yanked her out from under the slime-coated beast. She tried to curl up into a little ball, but the hand found her hair again and dragged her to her feet. Tears dripped down her face as she stared into the cold, glittering black eyes of the man the held her. He sneered at her as he began shaking her harshly and snarling out a stream of unknown words. She whimpered again and reached up to grab at his hand "Please. Please, don't. Please, please, please." she sobbed.
From the bronze forest came the sound of something crashing through vegatation and the man still astride his slime oozing mount barked out something that had the ring of a warning to it. The man gripping her hair grunted and, with a sharp jerk, flung her against his mount again. This time he caught her before she could slide to the ground, hooking an arm around her waist and tossing her up onto the beast's back. Her yelp of fear was cut short as she found herself face down, draped across the beast's shoulders, her breath forced from her lungs. Her sobs of fear took on hint of frustration as she scrambled to push herself upright only to have her hands slide uselessly against the beast's slime covered skin. The man leapt up behind her, planting a hand firmly against the small of her back and pinning her down.
He gathered up the reins he'd dropped earlier when he'd dismounted and spurred the beast into a jarring run toward the gray trees. Out of the corner of her eye she saw the other man swing his mount around and fall in behind them. Behind him, from the shadows of the bronze forest, a pack of... something came racing. The creatures made no noise as they hurtled forward, converging on the two slime oozing beasts. The men started yelling, kicking at the creatures as their mounts wailed and panicked. The man that held her let go as he struggled to control his mount and she tumbled to the ground.
One of the creatures that had come from the forest darted forward to stand over her. The others continued to snapped and lunge at the men and their mounts, driving them away from the gray trees and back towards the bronze forest. She curled up, drawing her knees in against her chest and covered her head with her arms. The beast that stood over dipped its head down to briefly snuffle at her hair. Then a low voice, laced with a hint of worry and irritation, trickled though her mind.
-Nasty cretins. Stealing females again. Back to stealing pup-pups again, they are. Poor pup-pup, confused she is. Frightened she is. Safe now she is, guard her we will. Safe now, pup-pup, safe now she is.-
She uncurled enough to lift her head and glance over at the men and their beasts. The men were on the ground, surrounded by the creatures, their mounts escaping into the gray forest without them. The creatures that surround them were completely still, their attention fully on the men they circled. Now that she was able to, she looked them over; they were mostly canine looking with maybe a hint of feline persuasion. Unlike the slime covered reptiles the men had rode these creatures were actually a pleasure to look upon.
They were long-legged, long-bodied, and long-eared. Their coats were a tawny gold color with sparse black spots spread about. Each one had a thick lion's mane of a darker reddish gold that covered their necks and chests. Their legs, which seemed too thin and spindly, sported thick black horizontal stripes. Their long, pointed snouts also boasted black stripes; these ran downward, with one outlining their eyes. Long tails were held just above the ground, a thickly tufted tip the same color of their manes twitching ever so slightly.
The one the stood over her was trying to get a good look at her, ducking its head and turning it from side to side. Finally it settled for stepping off to one side and laying down next to her, nuzzling her shoulder gently and whining softly.
-Not so frightened now, she is. A good thing Ka'inda has done, yes? Calmed the pup-pup she has. Pup-pup has no reason to be frightened now. Gray Ones come, see? Gray Ones help poor pup-pup. Bring her back to her Pack they will.-
That low voice, she decided, seemed to be coming from the golden creature beside her. The creature nudged her shoulder again and flicked its ears forward, looking towards the forest. She turned and followed its gaze, starting as a trio of shapes formed from the shadows. This time, the creatures that stepped forward seemed more familiar, but still wrong. They were large deer of some sort; very, very large deer. She guessed that they must stand well over six feet at the shoulder. Their coats were a light tannish gray that darkened to black on their legs, ears, snout, tail, and along their belly.
Each one of them bore a rider who straddled their withers in an odd kneeling position. Two of the men made their way over to the circle of golden creatures while the third stopped before her. He flashed her a quick smile before unbuckling the straps around his legs that apparently held him in the saddle. Then, letting his legs dangle, he scooted backward until he dropped to the ground. He stepped around to the strange deer's side and pulled a folded gray blanket from a pouch.
She sat up while his back was turned, keeping her knees drawn as close to her body as she could get them, and crossed her arms over her breasts once more. The man, who looked not much older than herself, turned around and smiled at her. He held out the blanket, frowning slightly when she made no move to take it. The strange deer turned its head and gazed at her with solemn brown eyes. Sighing, it turned its gaze from her to its rider.
-Talk to her, boy. She has no idea what you, we, are. Thinks we're no better than the Drifter Kind that snatched her up. Wouldn't hurt if you got down on her level, either.- it said. At least, she thought it was the strange deer that spoke this time.
The young man flashed her a slightly sheepish smile as he squatted down in front of her. "Here," he said, holding out the blanket, "To cover yeself up with. 'S all we have with us, I'm afraid."
She stared at his face and was mortified to find tears spilling down her cheeks once more. If she hadn't been completely without clothes she might have covered her face and wailed. He sighed, looking faintly uncomfortable, and shifted his position until he was kneeling beside her. He made a soft humming noise as he shook out the blanket and draped it around her shoulders "Ta, ta, 's all right now. We'll get ye back to ye family quick now. The Drifters didn't harm ye any, did they? Ye not hurt no where, are ye?" he asked softly.
She sniffled and pulled the blanket a little closer "Th... they kicked me, and th... they slapped me, and th... they tossed me about by my hair! And those nasty lizards of theirs got their nasty slime all over me and now I smell like them!" she managed to sputter out.
He chuckled made that soft humming noise again and ran his fingers through her hair, as if trying to comb it back into some sort of order. "Ta, ta, 's not so bad. Could be worse, yes? Coulda done more than slapping and kicking, yes? A little sleep and a bath and ye will be right again." he soothed.
She rubbed her nose and looked up, shocked to see that the golden creatures were gone. The men and the other two strange deer and their riders were gone as well. She and the young man, along with his strange deer and the golden creature that still laid at her side, were the only ones in the tiny clearing. The young man followed her gaze and chuckled "No fear. Tayr and Bjern'll be taking the Drifters to the nearest Border Post. Ye safe now. My mount, Kolht, and I, we'll take ye home." he said gently.
He stood and held a hand out to her, still smiling that gentle smile. She squinted up at him, a frown of concentration slowly creasing her features. He tilted his head to the side "What's wrong then now? Them Drifters didn't hurt ye too badly when they swatted ye about, did they?" he asked, immediately crouching back down in front of her.
She shook her head and the tears that had stopped started to fall once more "I... it's not that." she whispered, "It's just that, well, I don't know where I'm from. This place, it's so strange. I don't think I'm from here at all."
He tilted his head to the side and peered at her in confusion "Not from here? Ye be from the Border Lands? I didn't think the Drifters ever made it that far. I didn't think they dared cross into the Border Lands, not with the Great Beasts that live there." he said, scratching his head.
She blinked, looking at him blankly "Great Beasts? What are the Great Beast?"
He returned her blank look with one of his one "Ye're not from the Border Lands, then? Huh, where ye be from then, lass? Don't tell me ye be from lands beyond the Border Lands. No one's ever came from the lands beyond the Border Lands." he stated firmly.
She shook her head again "No. No, I don't mean it like that. I... I've never seen anything like this. Any of this. Not the trees, or the sky, or animals. Nothing." she said, frustration building.
The young man whistled softly, rocking back on his heels to peer up at the sky before speaking "Ta, ta, hush yeself. Don't mean to make ye upset. We'll take ye to speak with the Council, maybe they know where ye came from. If they don't, then nobody does, yes?"
The Council had not been as kind as the young man or the golden creature had been. When it became apparent that she could not tell them her name, much less where she came from, they lost interest in her. For hours they spoke among themselves, ignoring her presence. She sat in a bare room, wrapped only in the gray blanket that the young man had given her. Finally, she was brought back before the Council, who decreed her a simpleton and handed her over to the Drudgery Mistress.
She was given a ragged gown made of the same gray material as the blanket. The hem being several inches too long and providing a constant nuisance as she walked. The gown was also too tight for comfort in the waist; a thick band of leather making it almost impossible to breath or bend. Her feet, tender and soft, suffered greatly from the lack of shoes and were blistered and chafed by the end of the first day. When she brought it to the attention of the Drudgery Mistress, the cold woman cuffed her upside her head and spat on the floor. "Don't be a whining to me, ye miserable wench! Just be glad ye got something to wear on that scrawny hide." she snarled.
At nights, she found herself in a large unheated room with several other woman. None of which made any move to talk to her unless they found something lacking in her appearance or performance. During the days she scrambled about the lower bowels of the stone complex. So far, the Drudgery Mistress refused to allow her go anywhere that someone of 'importance' might catch sight of her. The old woman, with her thinning white hair and coal black eyes, claimed that a simpleton like her could not be trusted with important tasks. Thus she was given the duty of cleaning the furnaces of ashes, of fetching water for the Laundresses, and any task the other Drudgery women did not wish to attend.
This place, she discovered several days after her arrival, was called the Main Post. It housed the Council, any Nobility that wished to reside within the walls, the Gray Ones that weren't out on a scouting route, and the Gray Ones training facility. The Gray Ones, she learned, was the name of the strange deer the young man that rescued her had been riding. An elderly furnace tender, who often took pity on her and snuck her a loaf or two of stale bread, explained the duty of the large beasts and their riders.
"Ye see, the beasts be smart," he said as he tossed another pail of coal into the furnace, "real smart. Not everybody can just hop up on 'em and ride. They don't just let anybody up on their backs, ye know? Ye gots to have the 'touch' to be a Gray Trooper. Thems that get too old to be on the scouting routes, they goes to the villages and scout for youngin's that got the 'touch'. Thems that be young and able, they's put on the scouting routes. Hard times on them routes, ye know? Nothing but Drifters and Gypsies and the like. My eldest son had that 'touch', or so they said. They came one morning, two of 'em and their Gray Ones, and hauled him outta of his bed. Didna even give me and his ma a chance to say nothing 'bout it. Just up and took him, they did. Never saw him again after that. Never heard nothing from him, come to think of it, either."
She was sitting in her corner one night pondering over the old man's words, well away from the huddled mass of other women, when the door slammed open. The Drudgery Mistress stomped into the room, a gust of damp air whipping in behind her, and dropped a large pail at her feet. She looked over her charges, pointedly ignoring the girl huddled in the far corner. Finally, she huffed and planted her hands on her ample hips. "Ye, one o' ye, get on yer feet an' come here!" she spat, moving to jab her fingers at the spot beside her, "Elder Jefference wants to be havin' some lass clean out his fireplace. Says the ashes be choking the flames."
The women moaned as a group and a particularly perturbed one flicked her fingers in the girl's direction. "Oh, do so let the little mouse go clean out the ashes. We've just had our bathes, and we'll not be able to get another 'till tomorrow night." she complained, "We'll be all a mess for the return of the Gray Troops on the morrow."
The Drudgery Mistress scowled fiercely for a moment, then exhaled sharply and snatched up the pail. Swinging it violently, she stomped her way over to where the girl huddled and yanked her up by the arm. She shoved the filthy pail into the girl's equally filthy hands and shoved her towards the door. "Well, get a move on, ye simple wench! Quit ye dawdlin' already!" she barked as she minced at the girl's heels.
The old woman slammed the door behind the two of them, cutting off the sound of the other women's laughter. Before the girl could move any further she spun her about and jabbed a gnarled finger into her face. "Now, ye listen to me, ye little fool. Ye gonna go up an' clean the Elder Jefference's fireplace an' that's all ye gonna do. Ye don't be talking 'less ye spoken to. Ye be callin' him 'M'lord Elder' an' nothing else, ye hear?" she snapped.
The girl nodded, her eyes wide as she stared up at the Drudgery Mistress's cold face. The woman nodded sharply and pointed to the stairs she was never to go near "Go up them an' turn down the blue hall. Elder Jefference's rooms be on the very end. There'll be one of his Mah'rekat servants waitin' for ye in the hall." she said firmly, raking her gaze over the girl, "Lords, wish there was time to do something about ye filth. Just don't go touching nothing, ye hear?"
She struggled up the stairs, feet throbbing and limbs shaking from hunger and fatigue. The old furnace tender had fallen ill some nights ago and she had not been able to scrounge up a decent meal since then. Unlike the other women, who ate in the kitchens with the kitchen help, she had to scrounge her own meals from where ever she could. Simpletons were not allowed above the lower levels, except on rare occasions such as this, and did not have access to the Bathing Rooms or the Kitchens. Those labeled as simpletons had to make do on the 'kindness' of their peers. Which, more often than not, was could hardly be called kindness. As she stepped off of the stairs and into the Great Hall, her state of filth became even more apparent.
The Great Hall was Main Post's main entrance. It consisted of a large, very large, circular room that had several halls branching off of it. The floor was a type of black wood polished and waxed to a mirror shine, the walls and ceiling were mirrors with ornate gold and silver etching. The grand arches that graced the entrances of the separate halls were wooden carvings of fantastical creatures painted in the various shades of the specific hall's color. There were only three halls whose entrance arches were unpainted and identical: the hall that led to the Kitchens, the hall that led to the Servants Quarters and Lower Levels, and the hall that led to the Bathing rooms. There were four other halls beside the three servants' halls: the Green hall which housed the Menders and their patients as well as lead to the Gardens, the Gray Hall which housed the Gray Troops and Instructors, the Blue hall which housed the Council and Nobility, and the Gold hall which was nothing more than a collection of libraries and galleries and Council rooms. Each hall was carpeted, painted, and decorated in various shades of its respective color.
She hunched her shoulders and tried to scamper quickly down the Blue hall without tripping over the too-long hem of her gown. The best she could manage was an odd shuffle as she struggled to kick the material out of her way without scuffing her feet too much. She winced, wishing she could lift her skirt slightly and walk normally, as the half healed scrapes and blisters on feet caught on the carpet and stung painfully. According to the Drudgery Mistress is would be 'unseemly' for her to lift her skirt out of her path. A lady, no matter if she was a simpleton or not, should never show her feet. The Drudgery Mistress apparently did not seem to notice that she and the women under her command did that very 'unseemly' thing themselves as they went about their daily chores.
She kept her head down, as a simpleton was supposed to do, glancing up every now and again in an effort to locate the Elder Jefference's Quarters and his waiting servant. Up ahead she caught sight of a short figure standing beside a set of doors. The figure was short enough, and small enough, to be a young child. It was, if she were to believe the rumors, a Mah'rekat servant. The Mah'rekat were a race of creatures that had been hunted for their silken fur nearly to extinction, so it was said. Those few that survived had migrated from their home forests and hired on as servants to the Nobility. Very few people would hire a Mah'rekat as they looked too much like an upright walking, talking house cat. And no one, it seemed, wanted something that looked like a pet to be able to talk back to its master.
She had never seen a Mah'rekat servant. There were not that many in residence, Elder Jefference being one of the few that employed the cat-like beings. None of the creatures had ever wandered down to the lower levels. She had heard they were fond and indulgent of simpletons, prone to treating such people as their own offspring, patiently coddling them. It was the Drudgery Mistress's belief that 'simpletons' were simply too lazy to be normal. Her cure for being a 'simpleton' was hard work and harsh discipline. Simpletons were punished if it was discovered that someone was treating them special; which was why the Mah'rekat never made their way down to the lower levels.
The Mah'rekat turned its head, dainty ears perking slightly at the rattle of pail as the girl made her way toward it. For a second she stared at the cat-like creature, taking in its green-golden eyes, its thick dark gray hair worn in a severe bun, and its cat-like face. Whiskers quivered slightly as it looked her over and smoothed it clothes. It wore a miniature version of a personally employed female servant's uniform; a full gray skirt that hung several inches above the floor, a gray sleeveless shirt with a stiff high black collar, and a white apron with two large pockets. Its, her, feet were shoeless; instead she wore a set of golden rings around her ankles. Her thick, bushy tail twitched ever so slightly, stirring her skirt as it did so.
The girl came to a stop a few feet away from the Mah'rekat and held the pail up slightly. "I have been sent to clean Elder Jefference's fireplace of ashes." she said by way of introduction, rattling the pail gently.
The Mah'rekat sneezed softly, slapping her ears back against her head "I think, perhaps, someone should clean you of ashes. You are as dirty as a simpleton, but you don't have the look of a simpleton." the creature said, opening the door and motioning her through, "Did you suffer a particularly bad blow to the head?"
The girl rubbed her nose and hesitantly stepped into the room, admiring the feel of the soft carpets on her feet. These carpets were not rough and scratchy like the ones in the halls. These were smooth and silky and easy for her to slide her feet across. The Mah'rekat closed the door and trotted to her side, catching a handful of her skirt and leading her over to a fireplace. The creature sighed and pointed at the ashes "Master Jefference wants the ashes from this fireplace removed, as well as the ones from the one in his study. If you do the fireplace in his bed chamber as well, he will pay you an extra two jinna." she said.
The girl knelt before the fireplace and began removing the partially charred pieces of wood and setting them aside. She sighed as the ashes flittered up into the air and made her nose itch. The Mah'rekat suddenly sank down to kneel beside her "I'll say it again: you don't look like a simpleton, you haven't the build or look of one. Did you strike your head very badly?" she asked again.
The girl shrugged as she began carefully scooping the ashes from the fireplace with the little metal shovel that came with the pail. "I do not know. I do not know anything. I only know what I'm told I know." she admitted.
The Mah'rekat hissed, flattening her ears back against her head "You have been sent to the Mind Menders, have you not? Surely they would know if you had been the victim of head trauma." she demanded, her hands brushing her tail nervously.
The girl paused in her task to look at the creature in confusion "The Mind Menders? What are those? I have seen no one but the Council and the Drudgery Mistress. Was I supposed to be brought to these Mind Menders?" she asked, a faint trickle of something working its way into her heart.
"That is usually what happens when one is suffering a loss of one's memories. I am not surprised that you weren't brought to the attention of the Mind Menders. The Council has grown lazy as of late. That, as well, is not surprising." a dry voice commented from behind her.
She cried out and leapt to her feet... or, at least, she would have if her feet hadn't tangled in her skirt and sent her tumbling back to the ground. A hand caught her elbow and kept her from falling all the way. She hastily righted herself and risked a quick look at the person that had caught her. The man was elderly, bald, with twinkling green eyes half hidden beneath bushy white eyebrows. Flushing, she dropped her gaze and hastily hid her dirty hands, praying that none of the dirt from her arm had gotten onto his hand.
The old man chuckled and tipped her chin up with a finger "So, you're the little lady that was brought in by Trennet and his Gray One. I'm afraid Lady Suzhana is right, my dear; you do not look like a simpleton." he said, clucking softly and patting her cheek.
The Mah'rekat nodded, her tail twitching "Thank you, Master Jefference, I'm glad you agree. I'm sure, that beneath all that dirt and soot, there is a bright young lass." she commented, puffing her chest out slightly.
The old man, Elder Jefference, hummed softly as he settled himself in one of the room's large chairs. He settled down with a pleased sigh and placed his silver walking cane to the side. "You are a pretty young lady, who is obviously not a simpleton, and it pains me to see you treated like one. Your hands are not callused and your skin is pale and smooth, you are obviously not of common status. Amazing really, you look so much like my dearly beloved granddaughter. Whom, I fear, is dead; the caravan she was to arrive with was run down by Drifters. Her body was never found, but I fear she is well and truly dead. Such a horrible inconvenience that is." he said softly, a brief flash of pain crossing his face.
Lady Suzhana thoughtfully stroked her whiskers "I wonder, Master Jefference, if you could pass this gentle child off as little Lyadia? No one has seen her in many, many years and she does truly resemble the girl. The only family you have left would be Master Du'sehl, and he shouldn't have any complaints to such actions." she murmured softly.
Master Jefference sat up a little straighter and aimed a blinding smile at the Mah'rekat "Why, that is a brilliant idea my dear Lady! It would fill the void in my heart and the void in my Quarters quite nicely I think. And, you are most assuredly correct; Du'sehl should have no complaints, not with his moving into his lover's Quarters." he said with a shrug of his shoulders as he settled back into his chair.
The girl stared at him, ignoring the Mah'rekat who began tugging at her skirt again "But... but why? What are you going to do with me? What do you want from me? Why would you have me do this?" she asked, taking a hesitant step back.
The old man flashed her a smug little smile "Well, you see, I'm afraid I'm a lonely old man and quite used to having someone in residence with me. It used to be my grandson, Du'sehl, but he's decided to stop sneaking down the Gray hall to his lover's quarters every night. It's about time, too. It's not like everybody didn't know what the boy was doing." he said chuckling fondly.
The Mah'rekat flashed him an impatient glare, whiskers trembling slightly "The whole thing, truly, is that Master Jefference isn't on the Council, he isn't an Instructor, he isn't a member of the Nobility, and he isn't a Mage. In order for him to stay in residence here, he must have someone who is a member of one of the four classes residing with him." she explained firmly.
Mater Jefference nodded, humming softly "It is my intention, my dear girl, to have you sit in the place of my granddaughter so that I will not have to leave. It's why I had my granddaughter sent for, but sadly, since she is not with us anymore, I am hard-pressed to find a replacement. Can you imagine my surprise when Du'sehl's lover told me he'd brought in a young woman who looked so much like my missing granddaughter? Now that I see you, I am simply astounded by the uncanny semblance. If I didn't know better, I'd swear you were Lyadia." he stated, shrugging his shoulders and shaking his head.
Sniffing slightly, Lady Suzhana glowered at the old man "Well, I don't care what you plan to do with her in the future, but in the present she's going to get a bath! A bath and a meal, posthaste. And, shame on you for not thinking of it sooner." she huffed.
The old man chuckled as he waved a hand lazily about in the air "Yes, yes, I leave it all to you, my Lady. What does an old man know about a young woman anyhow? I trust that you'll see to getting her a wardrobe? Never mind about tutors; I'll talk to Du'sehl in the morning, I'm certain he'll be able to point me in the right direction." he commented offhandedly
Shaking her head and sighing, the Mah'rekat took up a handful of the girl's skirt and started trying to herd the girl in the direction of the bathing room. "Just remember, Master Jefference, the girl's going to need political tutors. Not some dust covered, bespectacled ninny who hasn't been to Court in thirty odd years." she muttered under her breath.
Raising his hands in defeat, the old man laughed as he waved the two out of the room "I did that once, my dear Lady, and you still will not let me forget." he said gayly, "Besides, it all turned out well in the end. I certainly had no objections when we parted ways. I had a marvelously educational time during our nightly sessions."
The Mah'rekat sent him a bland glare over her shoulder as she gave the girl's skirt a firm tug "That's because you spent your time learning the finer points of nightly exorcise." she grumbled.
The girl blinked owlishly at the old man as he tossed his head back and laughed, then gave in to the Mah'rekat's tugging and allowed her to pull her across the room. The cat-like servant hummed happily to herself as she led the girl into the bathing room, firmly pushing her down onto a gold and silver plated bench. Then, with a swish of her tail and hips, she padded out of room, tossing a brief "I'll go fetch the towels and send for a clean set of clothes, then I'll be back. Get out of those filthy rags!" over her shoulder as she went.
The girl blinked a few times, then turned to look around her as she fingered the lacings of her gown. The bathing room was lit by several candles placed in mirrored half domes and decorated in silvers and golds and white ceramic. There was a large, raised, curtained, dais on the far side of the room. A second glance revealed it to be a deep, sunken tub with silver and gold rails etched with vines along the edge. The gauzy curtains that hung from the ceiling echoed the rails' etchings with embroidered gold and green vines and flowers. The floor was tiled in gold and white tiles set in a spiral pattern. The walls, like those in the Great Hall, were mirrored from floor to ceiling and, like the railings, etched with vines. The ceiling was tiled with small, star shaped, mirrored silver tiles with a few mirrored gold tiles spread without.
The door swung open as Lady Suzhana returned, arms ladened with towels and a multitude of porcelain jars and bottles. Behind her, half hidden by a large wicker basket, was another, smaller Mah'rekat. The new Mah'rekat peered around the basket and grinned cheekily at her "G'evenin'! So, you M'lady Lyadia, you are?" she asked as she set the basket down on the bench.
Lady Suzhana snorted as she pulled the curtains to one side and tied them off with a golden cord "Yes, she is. She's lost her memory because of that horrible mishap. Poor little love, she's been living as a simpleton drudge. She probably hasn't bathed since who knows when." she commented as she twisted one of the gold knobs set into the tub's rim.
Water began to pour into the deep tub from a spigot set between the knobs, steam drifting into the air as the tub filled. Mumbling to herself, Lady Suzhana sorted through the many bottles and jars she'd set on the tub's rim, pouring the contents from a few into the bath water as she did so. Those that hadn't been used were set to the side for later use or tossed into a small basket. The new Mah'rekat chuckled as she began tugging the girl's gown lacings loose, clucking her tongue and muttering under her breath as she went. Once the lacings were loose, the Mah'rekat practically ripped the offending garment from the girl's too thin form and tossed it into a corner. The girl squeaked slightly and shivered in the cool air as she crossed her arms over her chest.
Lady Suzhana looked up from setting the towels out along the tub's rim "Blessed Lie'sh'mei! Cloa'ehi, we've got our work cut out for us." she grumbled as she planted her hands on her hips, "Well, don't just stand there, silly kitten, get your charge into the tub before she catches a chill."
The smaller Mah'rekat, Cloa'ehi, hissed and slapped her ears back against her head "Don't growl so! We're coming! Mustn't rush M'lady Lyadia about so much." she snapped as she sidled around behind her charge and began pushing her towards the tub.
The girl hesitated at the tub's rim, peering down into the steaming water with its frothed surface. Lady Suzhana huffed softly, her whiskers twitching ever so slightly "Go on, get in. The sooner you're clean, the sooner you can eat, and the sooner you can be to bed." she said firmly.
Cloa'ehi peered around her charge's form and sighed "Perhaps she doesn't like the bubbles. Maybe she prefers oils or salts instead." she suggested grumpily.
The older Mah'rekat glowered at her "Hush yourself! What woman doesn't enjoy a nice bubble bath? Into that tub, you little dust mite!" she scolded, swatting the girl lightly on the rump.
Shaking her head, and sending the older Mah'rekat a stern look, Cloa'ehi took the girl by the arm and maneuvered her into a sitting position on the tub's rim. She sent the stunned looking girl a warm smile "There, there, M'lady Lyadia, it's all right now. Poor little bird, you don't look like you've got a clue to what's going on." she murmured as she picked up one of the girl's feet and hissed.
Lady Suzhana leaned over, growling softly under her breath as she caught sight of the blisters and raw scrapes "Y'esa silk wraps and soft-hide slippers will have to do until those feet heal." she commented dryly as she reached behind and picked a rejected bottle out of the basket.
Slowly, with the gentle insistence of Cloa'ehi, the girl maneuvered herself into the tub's hot water. She sighed softly as the faintly spiced sweet scent of the water wrapped around her. Chuckling softly, Cloa'ehi hopped up onto the wide rim of the tub and walked along the edge with sure steps that only a feline could take. She plucked several bottles out of her apron pocket as she crouched down next to the girl's head "Well, first things first, I say. Let's get your hair washed and clean, M'lady, and then we'll go from there."
She woke to a trio of what the Mah'rekat, Cloa'ehi, had called Ember Sparrows giggling playfully in their cage. The bright little gems bounced about, seemingly unconcerned with the fact that they were in a cage. One, the red one, bounced up to the side closest to her and tilted its head to the side with a little trill. Then, it fluffed its wings, a few particles or glowing dander floating to the bottom of the cage. "Good morning!" it called, bouncing back a few steps on its perch, "Good morning, good morning, good morning! Sleep well, little bird, sleep well! Rise and shine! Time to snuff out the candles, little bird!"
She smiled and reached out a hand (a clean hand!) to gently stroke the little bird through the bars of the cage. The little bird giggled and leaned into the strokes, turning this way and that as it burbled happily. Its cage mates suddenly realized what they were missing and bounced their way across the many perches to join in. The three of the tiny little creatures spent a few seconds pushing each other away from her hand before settling down. The contented trilling, giggling, and burbling lasted for only a few seconds before they roused themselves once more.
"Good morning, little bird! Rise and shine!" the red one cried energetically.
"Snuff the candle, little bird! Time for bed!" joyfully contended the yellow.
"Hush! The baby's trying to sleep!" the orange giggled as it loudly stated its opinion.
The girl laughed and sat up, brushing a strand of corn-silk hair that had escaped the main braid out of her eyes. She gazed at the little birds a little longer, enjoying their carefree antics and enthusiastic vocals. When the little jewels ducked into their wicker nest-balls, she turned her eyes toward the large double doors that marked the entrance to the room she'd been given. They reached from floor to the ceiling and, when opened, the doorway formed a wide arch. Like the rest of the room's decoration, the doors were ornately carved, depicting a herd of deer racing across what looked to be a river.
One of the doors suddenly cracked open, revealing Cloa'ehi as she poked her head into the room and perked her ears forward. She smiled when she caught sight of the girl sitting up in the middle of the bed "So, M'lady is awake, is she? Will she be wanting to break her fast now, or will she be waiting for the noon meal?" she asked as she stepped into the room.
The girl blinked and looked around the room for a second, confused "Me? Ah, well, I don't know. Am I allowed to eat?" she asked hesitantly.
The Mah'rekat snorted softly as she walked across the room and threw open the wardrobe's doors "Is M'lady allowed to eat? What silly foolishness! Of course M'lady is allowed to eat. What should we dress you in, M'lady? I think, with your pale skin and hair, that the gold day-gown would be best." she mumbled as she pulled the garment out.
Slipping quickly from the bed, suddenly feeling as if she had overstepped some unseen bounds, the girl shook her head "No! No, not that!" she cried out.
The Mah'rekat sniffed and blinked, eyeing her in surprise "Don't you like the gold one, M'lady? I thought, with your hair and skin, it would look quite fetching. I suppose the pale blue would work as well." she said slowly.
The girl knotted her hands in the folds of the voluminous nightgown she wore "I can't wear any of it! I'll get you in trouble if M'lord Elder catches you dressing me in such!" she whispered, "Please, it would be better if I wore what was given to me."
With a hard push, the Mah'rekat closed the wardrobe's doors and tossed the blue day-gown down beside the gold. The material whispered softly as it settled, the tiny blue chime-shells ringing softly against each other. Ignoring the girl's frantic whimpers she began digging through the room's mirrored vanity, pulling small jars and combs out of the drawers. Once she had everything arranged, she gave the girl a stern look "Now, don't you go being stubborn about this, M'lady, but you will get all prettied up like proper Nobility should be prettied up." she said firmly.
The girl sat on the edge of the bed and shook her head "No, no, no! The Drudgery Mistress will be missing me, and she'll come and find what you've done and she'll be so mad! Please, can't I just wear what I was given? I don't want to make the Drudgery Mistress mad!" she pleaded once more.
Ears pinned back against her head, bushy tail lashing from side to side, the Mah'rekat glared at her charge: why did she have to be so difficult? "I understand that M'lady has suffered a terrible ordeal. I understand that M'lady has been living as a simpleton drudge. But, M'lady, you are no longer a simpleton drudge! You are the granddaughter of the great Master Jefference, the cousin of the wondrous Mage Scholar Du'sehl, and by birth right a member of Nobility." she snapped, stabbing a finger in the direction of the vanity, "Now, get your confused little Nobility butt over to this vanity or else I shall become spitting mad! And, I cannot, will not, be held responsible for what I do when I become spitting mad!"
The girl blanched slightly and dropped her gaze down to her hands, still knotted within the night-gown's material. "But, what if you get in trouble? What if I get in trouble? Won't M'lord Elder be mad at me for wearing his granddaughter's things?" she asked weakly.
Sighing deeply, the Mah'rekat crossed her arms over her chest "Silly girl. You are Master Jefference's granddaughter. These things, all of them, are yours. Who would blame you for making use of your own things?" she retorted, arching her brows ever so slightly.
Blonde hair caught and held the sun's light that streamed into the room as the girl lifted her head and looked about the room. Eyes wide, the girl looked to the Mah'rekat "This... this is all mine? All of this?" she whispered.
Cloa'ehi nodded and smoothed her apron "Yes. Just as your name is Lady Lyadia de na'oh Ressel, daughter of the late Countess Valda de na'oh Ressel. I suppose that this all comes as a shock: going from simpleton drudge to Countess overnight." she said sadly, shaking her head.
The girl, eyes still wide and unbelieving, stood slowly and hesitantly made her way over to the vanity. The Mah'rekat nodded to herself as the girl sat down on the stool in front of the vanity. Pulling two folds Y'esa silk, a golden cloth that was thick, yet sheer, out of her apron pocket, she knelt down on the floor at her charge's feet. She pulled a small jar of ointment out of her apron as well and began to smooth it along the soles of the girl's feet as she talked.
"I am sorry if I sounded harsh, M'lady, it simply makes me so mad to know that the Council has grown so lazy. You should have been sent directly to the Menders when you arrived. All of the pain you've suffered could have been avoided, should have avoided. I wish I could take it from you, M'lady." Cloa'ehi whispered sadly.
Startled, the girl looked down at the kneeling Mah'rekat to find the creature looking up at her, tears falling from her vibrant green eyes and shimmering against her grayish brown fur. "Please don't cry for me. I don't think I deserve to be cried over." she whispered.
The Mah'rekat shook her head and wiped the tears from her face "I am crying, M'lady, because I am so shamed by my thoughts." she admitted as she wrapped the Y'esa silk around the girl's feet.
The girl remained silent as the Mah'rekat slipped a pair of soft-hide slippers over the Y'esa wraps and stood up. Cloa'ehi picked a set of combs up off of the vanity's surface and slipped them into her apron pocket. Then, still wiping tears from her face, she began unbraiding the girl's long corn-silk hair. As she brushed the hair out she worked in a thin oil made from the petals of the Pearl Rose to keep it from attracting static, smoothing the silky locks and adding a soft glow to them. Finally, satisfied that the soft, nearly white locks were as tame as they ever would be, she began weaving them into a series of braids.
Retrieving a golden circlet from the vanity, she placed it on the girl's head and began coiling, weaving, the braids around it. The girl watched her in the mirror, admiring the Mah'rekat's smooth handiwork "You've done this a lot, haven't you?" she asked.
Cloa'ehi nodded as she secured the braids and circlet with a fine, spider-web thin silver netting "Many, many times, M'lady. This is to your liking, is it not? I can do something more elaborate if you wish? " she asked as she double-checked the netting.
With trembling fingers, the girl reached out and touched the mirror's glass "This... is me? I'm... pretty. I don't think, I don't feel, like I was ever this pretty before." she said softly.
Shaking her head and pawing through a small box of jewelry, the Mah'rekat sighed "M'lady, perhaps I should not say anything of your past, but..." she trailed to a stop, then surged on, "yes, M'lady, you were always this pretty."
"Then, you knew me... before? You know for certain that I am the person that everyone wants me to be?"
Cloa'ehi nibbled at her bottom lip, unconsciously buffing a jeweled broach against her apron. She glanced at the girl out of the corner of her eye, taking in the lost look and the faint glimmer of hope in the her topaz eyes. "Yes, M'lady, I knew you before. My mother was your Attendant, and before that she was your Nurse Maid." she said gently.
The girl nodded, her face thoughtful "If... if I was killed by Drifters on my way here, then does that mean your mother...? Was that why you were crying? Does is pain you to... to attend me?" she asked hesitantly.
The Mah'rekat shook her head, tears welling up in her eyes once more "No, M'lady, it is true that I grieve for my mother, but that is not the reason for my tears." she whispered, her eyes downcast.
The room was silent save for the excited burbles of the Ember Sparrows as the Mah'rekat steered the girl to her feet. Leading her away from the vanity, she began helping the girl into her clothing.
First came the thin, sleeveless under-gown and pantaloons made of cotton. Then, over the undergarments, a skirt-frame; a series of wooden half-circles overlayed with cloth that started out little more than the width of the wearer's waist and ended at floor-level nearly five feet in diameter. Roughly, the skirt-frame created a shape like that of a bell cut down the middle. Over the skirt-frame went the base-gown, a garment that was form-fitting along the upper body and widened drastically at the waist to form a voluminous skirt. Multiple skirts or shorter gowns were worn over the base-gown to create a layered effect. The finishing touch was the bodice, which was usually laced only tight enough to keep everything close to the body. Some women, those who cared only for their appearance, laced the bodice so tight that they were unable to breath or do anything more strenuous than sit about and look pretty.
The girl was silent through ever stage of dressing, at least until Cloa'ehi began lacing the bodice. She squeaked and fidgeted until the Mah'rekat let the laces go and stepped around to her front "What's wrong? Are your feet hurting you? We can sit for a few minutes to let them rest, if they need." she offered.
The girl shook her head, cheeks flushed ever so slightly "No, no, my feet are fine. It's just... well... does it have to be so tight? I can't breath." she whimpered.
The Mah'rekat took a step back and pinned her ears flat against her scalp, eyes widening "Oh! Oh... no... no, it doesn't have to be so tight. Most women wear their bodices just tight enough to keep everything in line. I'm sorry, I'll loosen it." she promised as she darted back behind her charge.
As the laces loosened the girl sighed deeply and relaxed "Thank you, thank you so much. If women don't wear these... bodices tight, then why did you tighten it in the first place?" she asked, sounding mildly perturbed.
Giving the girl's skirts one last tug and twitch to settle them in place, Cloa'ehi stepped back to examine her handy work. She nodded and began sorting through the jewelry she had chosen earlier. Every piece was made of silver with either gray river pearls or blue sea crystals, all of which blended well with the blue of the girl's day-gown. The gown itself, despite being made up of a dark base-gown and two layer skirts of a lighter blues, was plain. The only decoration the day-gown boasted was a simple embroidery pattern on the layer skirts and chime-shells along the hem of the base-gown.
The Mah'rekat once more led the girl over to the vanity and expertly maneuvered her down onto the stool without causing the girl's skirts to flip upward. "Do you really want me to answer that, M'lady? You might not like what I tell you." she warned as she tied a necklace of river pearls and small silver birds about the girl's neck.
The girl shrugged slightly "It doesn't matter to me. I don't know who I was... am... should be?" she said dryly, "I begin to think this is all some grand joke."
Cloa'ehi shook her head "No joke, M'lady, only truths." she reassured the girl, "And, the truth is, you used to be quite... vain. You rarely thought of anything but your appearance and what those around thought of you."
The girl turned her head to gaze at the Mah'rekat "I was spoilt, you mean." she said, then turned her gaze back to here reflection in the mirror, "You are wrong, it is all a big joke. I am told I am a spoilt Countess, but all I know of myself is that I am a simpleton drudge. Everyone is laughing at me behind my back, aren't they? I don't blame them one bit. Who would believe a drudge without a memory like me is the Countess of anything?"
a/n: Well, what do ya'll think? Review and let me know, okay? If you have any questions, don't hesitate to drop me a line.