Chapter Six

Costs

I am awakened by the morning light as it is tossed into my bedroom by a wanton sun. Rolling out of bed, I land with a soft thud on the flowered carpet, still wrapped in my amethyst coverlet. I struggle out of my mummy-like wrappings, eyes still closed. Once free, I crack open an eye and am surprised to see that Sherona has drawn a bath for me. Knowing her it is likely to hot, but this is nonetheless an improvement. Baby steps. Then, I am reminded of the occurrences of last night and realize that it is not Sherona but instead my maid, Isolade. Quite a gem, now that I think about it, albeit a touch whiney. I can beat that out of her. I snort at the thought. Not likely.

On a small desk, the very one I used to write Isolade's letter, sprawls a winking golden dress, a somewhat more casual version of the ball gown I had worn last night. And when I say more casual, I mean that by anyone else's standards this would be a resplendent wedding down. Certainly not everyday wear. "Sherona! Change the bloody dress! I am not going to a damn ball!"

Isolade's head pops out of the quarters she shares with Sherona. "Milady!" she squawks, no doubt shocked by my pungent tongue. Admittedly, I swear like a drunk sailor, product of being raised by one. Although I do my father too much discredit by naming him so however humorous the comment might seem.

"Change the dress, Isolade. Something suitable for a trip to Avendierre." I truly did not want Isolade to have to do this needless task. Quite frankly, I had merely hollered so that I could further aggravate Sherona. I wonder where she is at any rate but do not dwell on it. Sherona has her own work to do for the mission, and although we are here, amidst feasts and dancing, we cannot forget the whole reason for our trip, which I, unfortunately, am forgetting. And quite pleasurably too, let that not be forgotten.

She produced a grey wool dress, touched only at the sleeves and neck with sunny silk embroidery. No doubt it is of the finest wool and the finest embroidery, crafted by the finest seamstresses made for days of illness but it is refreshing. Simple.

"Much better," I report approvingly, running my fingers compulsively over the fabric. "Isolade, today you will be accompanying me to Avendierre in Sherona's place. Today," I announce to Isolade, "I will be a farmer's daughter going to market, and you, my sister."

Isolade gaped at me with utter amazement, and I do not blame the reaction. First my choice of words and now my decision that we parade as farmer's daughters. No doubt she will be wishing me to have my head examined sometime soon. To rationalize my actions, I explain, "I need an escape from court life, to associate with...everyone...other than nobility. Where is Sherona, by the way?"

Wrinkling her nose in thought, she finally responds, "Downstairs, milady. I believe your brother, Lord Damae, called for her."

Oh I bet he called for her. Am I the only who is even vaguely aware of our mission here. Frustrated, I brush my hair back, fighting through tangled umber tresses, tying them back with a mustard yellow ribbon.

"What about the bath, Lady?"

"Everyday people don't have the luxury of a warm bath in the morning, so, neither do I!" I reply cheerfully, although, truthfully, the reason I do not bathe is that my hair looks so very nice today, spilling into these very picturesque curls and I know that if I step anywhere near water they will be ruined. "Isolade, fetch the linen shift from the wardrobe, will you?"

She darted to my wardrobe, her midnight blue gown flapping behind her.

With her back turned, I discard my sleeping shift, ready for Isolade to toss me my new one. Just as I am preparing to capture my fresh shift, someone barges in. My eyes snap up and…Raidlen! Screaming, I leap across my bed, seeking refuge behind it. Despite myself, I turn tomato red. Raidlen appears quite calm though. No doubt he visits boudoirs often. "What are you doing here? Do you not knock?"

"I do knock."

I glare at him cuttingly. "You may be the Prince of Avarain, but that gives you no right to come in, unannounced, without knocking." I peep out a bit further from my hiding place so that now my entire face is viewable. Clutching my spring green coverlet, I pull it around my body, creating a toga of sorts but not leaving my place of refuge.

His hazel eyes gleam with apology, and he scuffs the rug with the toe of his boot. "I am very sorry, Ela, really. I simply had to share something with you, urgently…although now that I think about it, it was not so urgent after all…"

"No matter how urgent it was, unless the Castle was on fire, you could have bloody well knocked! And, it is Lady Ela to boors who do not knock." With my blanket wrapped tightly beneath my arms, I stalk towards him, uncaring that leg flashes between the openings of the throw.

"But--" he gasps, no doubt shocked that I would appear before him in such a manner. But truly, it is no matter; he has already glimpsed all there is to be seen.

I open my mouth to let him have a piece of my mind, and suddenly…perhaps it is my imagination, but I feel a wave of heat emanate from Raidlen and envelop me and I can feel my own skin begin to burn slightly, my very insides trembling. So instead of the forceful LEAVE I had planned on, I, drowning in a tidal wave of…I believe it is called lust, manage to squeak, "Leave."

"Lady Ela…" Despite my own fevered state, brought on so quickly, Raidlen, by all accounts, looks quite calm, which is possibly the most unjust thing I have ever encountered. It is not right that he should have this sort of affect upon me so suddenly and nothing appears to have happened to him.

Taking a heavy breath, irritated that he was moving me in this manner and he no doubt looked upon me like his…sister, I roar, "NOW!"

With one hand clutching the only thing between me and my virtue, I herd Prince Raidlen out, despite myself enjoying the feel of my hand on his back. The thought takes me to somewhere else entirely and I vanquish the thought. A most startled look crosses Raidlen face as he is thrust out the door which I quickly click locked. Nobility are utterly devoid of matter and most of all princes.

Crinkling my eyes shut to gain some sort of balance after this situation, I breathe, "The shift, Isolade."

Shaking it out, she hands it to me and I hastily dress in the gown, my toga forgotten on the floor. Tying a thick ocher ribbon about my waist to service as a belt, I pat my hair back into place. Despite the everyday nature of my actions, I am not soothed and I still feel as if sparks are flying across my skin.

"He's quite handsome, the Prince is," Isolade comments quietly.

I level her a look.

Several minutes later and Isolade and I walk out of the castle without so much as a glance from the guards. No doubt they take us for a pair of servants doing the day's shopping, but I still duck my head for there is always the chance they will somehow recognize me. The curse of my queer coloring. Walking beneath the fluttering palm leafs, I spy the turquoise tropical waters dazzling in the harbor, virtually blinding me with the glare so that I could see nothing but light and water.

"We shall first go to Avendierre Main, and then we will visit the harbor," I tell Isolade, digging up names I had picked up.

She raises her eyebrows, both scandalized and surprised. "The harbor, Milady? That isn't the place a lady like you should be goin' to."

Was the harbor truly that dangerous of a place? Hmm…it actually piqued my interest somewhat and I truly desired to visit it but for the sake of Isolade's pulse, I merely laugh. "Not the Common Harbor, dear Isolade. The Merchant Harbor. With these duds we should be able to reach it without any hindrance." While I do not for certain that there was a division between the two I bank on the fact that both Nighlyn and Hademer follow that trend. Surely the third nation will as well?

The girl will not let the matter lie and if I did know better I would suspect her an eye spying on the spy. "But why, Mistress?" In the breeze, her vermilion locks thrash about her face, flying into hazel eyes.

"Do not question me, girl!" I snap from out of insecurity more than anything; I have no idea why I go there despite the clear plan which had formed in my mind overnight, the product, surprisingly enough, of a dream. I simply hope that it is turns out to be more tangible than the dream was in the end. For a moment I feat that I am becoming a clone of Aerielle, taking my frustration out on an innocent handmaiden. I cringe at the thought. Am I no better than her after all?

"Milady, which way do we go?"

In an attempt to make amends, despite Isolade not showing any sign of recognizing my slight, I gently say, "From here Isolade, I am Ela. None of this 'Milady' business; not here at least."

"Yes Mil--Ela." She stumbles over the transition, recovering with a large smile.

Passing from gates of the palace and landing upon the road which leads to everywhere from the palace I muse, "Let us go to the Herb Quarters. I have a few errands to run there as well? Sister?"

Linking arms with her, I trek down the paved streets toward the Herb Quarters, which lie in the dead center of the bustling marketplace. I am inundated with different scents: not only the pungent smell of overripe tropical plants but different spices swirl in the air, blurring with the briny scent of the ocean. Lifting my chin to better feel the blaring sun, I see levels of houses rising out of the shops, with sheets dangling from windows and flowers bursting from sills. Nearly ideal except for the blemish of repugnant dark alleys, which hide in slim crevices between the buildings. My mouth twists distastefully as a few early morning winos lurch into the light and then are hastily pushed back into the side streets by shop owners; anything to keep the façade of perfection alive. The little light that flashes between those crevices reveals hungry and dirty, peering out eagerly for a scrap of food. I am almost moved to pity but for the fact that the faces are adult and male and appear to have no deformities or handicaps. Work is not too difficult to come by here…

My eyes dart about, trying to find what I am searching for, but when nothing is clear, I hop into the nearest store, a bakery. Cooling my hot hands on the icy granite, I wait for a server to attend me and Isolade. Finally, a boy approaches us and I, not wishing to seem uncouth, ask for two small muffins along with directions. He comes back, a few instants later, carrying steaming muffins made of some queer tropical fruit, all pink. "Do you know where I can find the nearest wise woman?"

He mutters a few directions which I do not understand but still nod at knowledgably. I can manage with his garbled message well enough, I suppose.

"Thank you very much," I say, as I wipe the last remnants of the muffin from my lips. With my eyes already squinted to protect me from the sun, I was surprised to find the sky darker than it had been merely instants ago. Clouds of satin-grey writhe in the sky and the palms rattle, casting dappled shadows of gold and green intermittently. A cool, moist breeze curls through my hair and I can taste the imminent moisture in my mouth. Following the baker boy's jumbled instructions, we reach the woman's business house just as the first beads of rain needle my skin. It is small but quite neat, not as ominous as I had imagined. Although to be fair, I had imagined entrails hanging in the windows so that may have been a bit much.

Isolade and I quickly shuffle in, and I call out, "Excuse me?"

A middle-aged woman appears before me, once again shocking me with her well-kept appearance. Where I had anticipated a hideous crone, she was actually quite pretty, with tawny skin and night black hair tied back with a kerchief. I have a feeling exactly why the baker's boy knew this particular woman.

"Do you deal truth potions?" I ask and can verily feel Isolade's shocked gaze boring into my back.

The woman appears also seems surprised and I suspect she is reassessing me. "Yes."

"Well..?"

"How strong would you like it?" She brushes her hands off and goes to stand behind a counter. Shelves stand proudly behind the counter, each boasting a multitude of herbs and tonics.

My brow creases in confusion and I wipe my palms on grey skirts. Biting my lip, I respond, "Er, the strongest you have, strong enough to make a man spill his darkest secrets." I feel incredibly foolish giving this theatrical response as soon as it spills from my lips. I cannot even blame it on reading too many novels or watching too many plays. The idiocy was genuine Ela.

An amused smile plays across the woman's mouth, like shadows on a pond. "I believe a Sachkehana would do the job well, 'make a man spill his darkest secrets,' as you said."

"Ahem, yes." I cover my mouth as if stifling a cough, although a rush of tingling embarrassment courses through my arms. Finally, once the wave passes, I ask, "How much?"

She examines me, her eyes sweeping me up once and then down, assessing how much money jingles in my pouch. By my plain but good wool, she no doubt gauges that I could afford the price and perhaps a bit more. Oh the wonders of the market. In my small town, my father simply could not disguise his wealth or status by wearing a different set of clothes but I remember that when he went out to the city with our village's fish he would always dress in his finest. "The finer you dress, Ela my girl," confided my father, "the higher quality people will think your product. 'Tis simple business."

"Four silvers."

I wrinkle my nose in false consternation. Some more games. This time I haggle. "Four coppers. Madame! You must think I have the Emperor's treasury at my disposal. Two silvers, at the most!"

"Two silvers! Two silvers! My fine truth serum for two silvers! Are you mad? Four silvers and I shall not go any lower!"

Feigning indignation, I protest, "You must think me a fool to take your offer four silvers. Four silvers! I will simply have to take my business to a place which does not seek to swindle honest customers!" Turning around, I take one step towards the door.

"A woman has to feed her family," mutters the shopkeeper irately.

I take another step.

"Finest grade truth serum in all of Avendierre!"

I am nearly at the door.

"Very well! Very well! Three silvers but that is my final offer. Three silvers! Imagine. No one understands quality anymore."

With a beatific smile, I hand the woman her three silvers and she exchanges it for the vial of truth serum in a small paper bag. "It was a pleasure doing business with you," I say and she simply grumbles in response. "But this should work, and if it does not…"

Quite frankly, I would not be surprised if this potion is heavily watered wine. We will see though, will we not? I scowl at the thought of it being wine. For the price I have paid it should be the finest wine, from the Emperor's own vineyards. Likely just some swill from the local inn.

Isolade and I walk into the torrent which very nearly blinds me with its thickness. My hair is beginning to grow sodden and the water drips off of it into my mouth and on my nose. At the very least it is warm. Spying an alley which the rain seems to avoid, I tug Isolade towards it. "Shelter," I announce jovially, and I blindly dash towards it, ready to wait out the downpour. Oh. I have run into something. I look up and realize, Oh Seasons. I have run into someone"Pardon me, sir," I say, ducking my head, prepared to walk back where Isolade waits for me. She has apparently not followed into my alley.

"My oh my, and what precisely are you doing in the alley? Ain't you heard they're dangerous?" The man, fair-haired and dark-eyed, peers at me with a most peculiar light in his eye. His hand now darts out and latches onto my arm with a grip as strong as a drought in a desert: a grasp that would not release.

Futilely, I jerk against his clutch, and respond, "I had heard something of the matter. Do you mind letting me go, sir?" I say this in case he is simply misdirected in his attempts to aid me. But a feeling of panic which is slowly blinding me is screaming otherwise.

" 'My letting me go sir?' " he mimics. "Where do you think you are girl, a ball?" He begins towing me towards the back of the alley and as it were, I can feel exactly his intentions. I now struggle in earnest, screaming and kicking and punching, all weakly. Oh no. I will die. I will die. I will die. I will die. Why am I so stupid? Why am I so stupid? Mama. Papa. Mama. Papa. Mama. Papa. Mama. Papa. Mama. Papa. I close my eyes, trying to recapture some sense of sanity. I have to…beat this bastard senseless. Something courses through my veins and the situation mercifully blurs itself before me. My knee collides with his groin though and the man's hand temporarily slackens and I drop out of the circle of his arms, kicking him across the knees, causing him to buckle with pain. He seems to be rising again, but…a basket has appeared on his head! He attempts to tear it off, but Isolade kicks him where I had done so previously.

"Isolade, run!" I scream, grabbing her thin arm, and dragging her away. As soon as we are well away from the alley and on the main streets, I sink to the ground, my trembling legs unable to prop me up any longer. I can feel the tears mingling with the rain on my face and my eyes growing more and more bloated, but the tears do not stop. Hiccups appear and although I am thinking rationally, I physically cannot muster any similar attribute. My throat burns and I shiver uncontrollably. I was nearly…I nearly…The tears come in a stronger wave and I let myself drown in them…

¨¨¨¨¨

Propped up against Isolade, I have limped through the streets of Avendierre, and now face the castle. For whatever reason, I simply cannot make myself take the step into its gates. No matter how much my mind urges my heart and my body to move forward, they simply cannot.

"Come, milady," Isolade urges. "We must get you inside, in the warmth. Please?"

My body aches nearly as much as the inside of my chest, my heart I imagine, but I let myself be pulled by this diminutive personage. We are halted at the cast-iron gates by a grizzled guard, who no doubt takes one look at us and determines us to be filth. How right he is. With a gaze laden with disdain he informs, "Servants entrance is to the back." He kindly gestures to where said entrance stands.

Isolade draws herself up to her full height and shoots back, "This is Lady Elanora, so thank you kindly but the servants entrance ain't necessary."

The guard examines us derisively, and remarks, "You're awfully scraggly, Lady."

I sink further into my shell but something, indignation perhaps, buoys me back up. "You will let me and maidservant through I shall report your misconduct to the Prince Raidlen. And you can be certain he will take a personal interest the manner."

The man appears unconcerned, but nonetheless unlatches the gate and lets us through. I can feel his eyes following me as if I am some sort of thief and all the righteous indignation sweeps out of me. I am…afraid of him. I cannot imagine why, but there you have it. I am afraid of him. Once again, I drop against Isolade and she all but carries me to my rooms. She gently pushes me into the bed and pulls the covers in around me. As she shuts the curtains, Sherona saunters in and says crossly, "Why is her Majesty in bed already?"

Isolade grabs Sherona and drags her into their shared bedroom. A few minutes later Sherona reappears behind Isolade who continues setting the room to rights, seeming thoroughly chastened. She sits on the bed beside me and I cannot help but feel somewhat shocked. "Don't tell Damae," I whisper.

"Of course not," she whispers back, reaching out to take my hand.

The serum is still clutched in my other hand.

A/n: So. I had written the almost-rape scene back in seventh grade and simply could not believe how childishly I had handled it…more or less Ela's like, ew. And then moves on. Like, OK?! So, I realize this chapter isn't as light-hearted as the previous ones have been, but there you have it. And of course, review please.