"Mmm." Ingvildr made a small, rather pleased sound in her throat as she looked over Aisha a final time after the hours of scrubbing, washing, cutting and priming. The old woman began to run her wrinkled fingertips over the smoothness of Aisha's hair, as though it were a rare silk.
"What a colour. When was the last time you have seen your hair this golden?"
Aisha looked to see her reflection in Ingvildr's large looking glass and was very shocked at what she saw. Her hair was completely free of dirt and twigs and other such oddities...and Ingvildr had washed it with coloured flasks of sweet-smelling shampoos, dried it thoroughly and combed it out and pulled the whole length of it up, which was a process Aisha hadn't liked in the least. But the outcome was simply stunning; Aisha's hair was once again the colour of the sun, bright and beautiful, and at the sight of it Aisha almost let tears spill.
Since the death of the king, the water had become rather expensive, and was certainly not for washing hair, and the shampoos were no longer brought to her village to be sold to the ladies. She had let her hair go unwashed for far too long and now, as she looked upon its true colour, was embarrassed she had allowed it in such a state for so long.
Aisha shook her head at her reflection. "I don't remember..." she murmured, answering Ingvildr's question.
The Tulrulian certainly knew what she was doing, but then again Aisha had heard stories that Tulrulians were amongst the most beautiful creatures in all of Abidon and knew from birth the advantage of great beauty and were taught to exhibit it at every living moment. Aisha noticed too how clean her face was, scrubbed of the caked dirt and blood. Aisha had forgotten how pale her skin was, and when she touched it she found it to be smooth and soft. Aisha smiled. And noticed the settle make-up that Ingvildr had also applied; the sweetest of colours here and there, not too much and making her face glow.
"You'll make a fine princess," Ingvildr said, smoothing her fingertips over Aisha's hair slowly, and then she tsked and drew her hands away. "So long as they dress you in something suitable."
"Ah, so you know about it then." Aisha said a little quietly. "Jaak told you?"
Ingvildr gave her a small, sly smile in the mirror's reflection. "No my dear, you did. With your thoughts."
Alarm caught in Aisha's eyes and she looked over her shoulder at Ingvildr, who's wicked smile remained, and the old woman turned to the fireplace in the kitchen, where there was water boiling for tea. Aisha bit down on her lip, suddenly appalled that the entire time Ingvildr had been attending to her appearance, Aisha had been fretting about the entire thing in her head...and Ingvildr had listened to every word. Why hadn't anyone told her that Tulrulians could read minds?
"Probably because nobody knew." Ingvildr told her from the other end of the house, as she prepared two cups of tea. "And nobody does know, except for us Tulrulians. We keep some secrets to ourselves, like all creatures."
Aisha stood up from her seat in front of the looking glass and went into the little kitchen where Ingvildr had finished the tea and handed Aisha a cup. "How is it you came to be here?"
Ingvildr looked at her inquisitively with her pink-slitted eyes, that Aisha knew she would never get used to. And the Tulrulian woman shook her head almost in deep disappointment. "Tulrulia fell under hard times since the usurp of the King. I was the first to attempt an assassination and...well," she took a sip of her tea. "Obviously that bitch Dalal found more use in keeping me alive then having me executed, so she moved me out here, had me shackled. And I perform beauty miracles on whoever is sent to me."
Then Ingvildr put her cup down, and sighed very heavily. "Mostly I am sent young men to be decorated and sent to her bed chambers. I am glad that for once I am decorating a woman...even if you are a sham wife for the prince."
Aisha blinked and stared down into her teacup, taking a sip now and then and finding it very strong and not as appetizing as she would have liked. "I discovered, when I was making the attempt to end the Queen's life, that she wove a scepter-"
At that remark Ingvildr snorted rather loudly. "That is what gives the bitch her powers. A sorceress, really. She is no sorceress if she is not learned in her magic. She simply uses it, and that makes her no less than a pawn."
Ingvildr reluctantly sipped her tea, and Aisha did too, and then there was a knock at the door, followed by the sound of it being opened. They both looked and Jaak stood in the doorway looking at the two of them.
"It's late." he said. "I should be getting her back inside."
Ingvildr waved her hand at him. "Be my guest, she's all done."
Jaak came inside and Aisha thanked Ingvildr for the tea and gave her back the cup, and then thanked her for the transformation, for which Ingvildr offered no word of welcome, but instead smiled as though she were very pleased about something. And indeed she was; perhaps, with her help, they were going to pull off a scheme that would eliminate the Queen.
When they left Ingvildr's little house, Jaak didn't say how Aisha looked different, but she didn't mind. It probably wasn't protocol. He walked in front of her slowly and she followed, every now and then putting a hand through her hair and touching the smoothness of it. She, quite truthfully, was rather pleased with the results, and knew inside that Prince Luca would most likely be pleased as well.
They passed no one in the darkness through the halls, and Aisha wondered how late it was. She was now feeling rather tired, dragging her feet along the further that Jaak led her into the palace. She didn't ask where he was leading her; she was positive that she wouldn't be going to Luca's chambers, maybe she would be given a room of her own.
At one point Jaak turned to her and put a finger to her lips, to be silent. And then they came to a door at the very end of a long hallway and Jaak opened it and began to walk up a narrow corridor of stairs. Aisha followed, looking up and decided they must have been ascending into a tower. They climbed up and up, and whenever there was a window Aisha stopped to look through it, and finally they reached a door at the top of the stairs and Jaak opened it.
It was a lovely room, plenty of space for one person, very circular in shape. Aisha stepped inside and marveled at it. A large four-poster bed sat against the far wall, next to twin doors that opened onto a balcony. There was a fireplace and a small seating area, and closest to the door was a huge wardrobe and a large lovely looking glass next to it.
Aisha looked around, completely speechless.
"This space is temporary, of course." Jaak said. "Until you and his majesty have...worked out your permanent arrangement. I will be back at dawn."
Aisha looked to Jaak and stared as he smiled at her warmly, and bowed his head, and closed the door as he began his descent down the staircase. Aisha was left alone and she felt positively giddy.
At first she went to the bed and flopped down upon it, letting her breath leave her body in a heavy sigh. She closed her eyes, for she so wanted to go to sleep, what a day it had been. The bed was more comfortable than anything she had ever slept on, and if she turned and lay on her side, she could stare through the balcony doors and see the night sky and the stars.
Aisha wanted to stand and go to the dresser to see the new clothes she had been given, but her body felt too heavy, too wanton of sleep, that she found she simply couldn't rise up and go to it. She laid her head on the nearest pillow and curled up on the mattress, and closing her eyes she wasn't awake another moment before she drifted off to sleep.
"The Prince has asked that you breakfast with him." Jaak said the next morning as they descended the tower together. Jaak seemed happy, in the daylight his skin positively glowed and every now and then Aisha caught him with a thin smile on his lips. He had come to wake her up almost at the very crack of dawn and she quickly had to dress and follow. For something as simple as breakfast she was pleased with the gown she picked out; a simple white dress with a golden robe belt. It felt cool and soft on her skin and fit her perfectly. Even when her father had been considered wealthy, she had never had a dress so fine.
"Today you will accompany the Prince to court. It is likely you will be noticed." Jaak sounded somewhat amused about that. "His majesty wishes to debrief you over breakfast."
"Debrief?" Aisha asked, with a strange tone in her voice.
"On how to act in the presence of the Queen." Jaak said, looking at her over his shoulder.
They walked through the palace halls, which were busy with activity. Servants ran past them carrying baskets and jugs and linens. Not one of them looked at either Jaak or Aisha herself, even as she would stare after them as they passed her. Few were dressed in clothes higher than a peasant but they didn't look at her either. She felt practically invisible.
The daylight streamed in through the massive windows and brought the white marbled halls into great glimmer, like a palace made of pearl. Aisha began to wonder if she would have any time at all in which to properly explore the palace and see all of its wonders.
Jaak led her to the end of a hallway, and towards two massive doors that brought in the sunlight, and they walked out onto a large pristine balcony that stood over the sea. Aisha felt her breath catch in her throat as she stepped out onto the stone and let the sun catch on her face, and she could smell the salt air and fill her lungs with it.
"You've been to see Ingvildr, have you?"
Aisha gasped as Luca's voice startled her. She looked to her left and there the prince sat at a table, covered with exotic-looking foods and beverages. The Prince caught her eyes as she looked upon him and his expression became that of surprise, and then he looked away and continued to nibble at his meal.
"Sit. Please." he invited her, and Aisha very carefully went forward and sat down on her knees at the table, looking over everything that was displayed for her. Fruits that she had never seen before, finely cut meats and large rolls with a butter to go with them. Aisha took the sight in rather hungrily, as she hadn't eaten in awhile.
"Help yourself, I've meant for us to dine together." Prince Luca said as he lifted a cup of tea to his lips and drank.
Aisha looked down at her plate, and then very sheepishly reached for a roll and tore at it, biting at bits of the bread. The Prince was dressed almost identically to her, in a very loose white cotton toga, almost the same one he was wearing the day they met. His brown hair hung loose, and the sunlight caught on his skin and made him look almost golden. And the blue of his eyes...quite mesmerizing. She wondered if he was going to say anything about the way she looked, but decided he probably had too much pride for that.
She began to help herself to the fruits and meats, eating quite heartily, and drinking the tea and water that were set out for her. She was very grateful for the feast and filled herself shamelessly. When she finished she discovered that the Prince was staring at her with his lovely blue eyes, as though mesmerized by her. But she knew he was probably appalled by her table manners.
"From now on we should share a meal once a day, as husband and wife should." Luca said as he put down his teacup. "Now as Jaak has probably told you, my aunt will have everyone at court today. That will include both of us. I'm pleased that Ingvildr put up little fight for your...transformation. She can be trouble, that woman."
Aisha knew she should have been insulted, but she refrained from being angry, for she herself was far too grateful towards Ingvildr for the transformation.
"You must act accordingly, even as you will be in the presence of the Queen." Luca spoke very serious now. "And that goes for everyone in court. Even if every lady is tittering over the colour of your hair, you must not converse or make eye contact. Give them the delusion that you are there for me, not for them."
Aisha frowned. So...she would walk around on the Prince's arm and do nothing for a few hours? That hardly sounded productive.
The prince sensed her obvious disapproval. "Regardless of how it may seem, it is necessary to our plan. The court must see me with a woman if you and I are to be married."
Married. Aisha shuddered, not in revolt, but rather in shock. Somehow her body and mind were not quite used to that fact yet.
A moment passed between them as the Prince stared at her, waiting for her to reply, but she didn't know whether to say something or keep her mouth completely shut. So far she had not been entirely clever in her actions, so surely the fierceness of her tongue would only hurt the matter.
"Have you lost your voice?" Luca asked suddenly, and she looked up at him in surprise. "Perhaps Ingvildr captured it and put it in the music box on her mantel?"
Aisha was taken aback, but she cleared her throat. "Ingvildr says your Aunt weaves a scepter that holds her power. Perhaps, if we come close enough-"
He put his hand out as if to stop her. "No, it won't work. Even if we did happen to get close enough to snatch it, there's a reason she brings so many of those boy slaves to court with her. They're indoctrinated to grab hold of it should it be stolen."
Aisha scowled instinctively. "You're telling me there's no way to acquire it? So there's no way to stop her?" She questioned, sounding surprised when she was actually rather angry. Why did Luca progress in such a slow manner?
The Prince looked at her very seriously and with a less then amused expression. She could tell she had passed on dangerous territory. "Aisha as I explained yesterday, we can be sure of the throne if I marry and produce an heir. My Aunt is not immortal, she will die in due time, not even magic can save her of that."
"So you think all this can be accomplished by sitting around and waiting for the time to pass?" Aisha asked, shaking her head from side to side slightly. If Jaak had been standing behind Luca, for her to see, he would have most definitely shaken his head in warning.
And indeed Luca's expression soured even further, if that were possible. He rubbed his slightly grizzled chin with one hand. "Perhaps you have a better plan?"
"It's ridiculous that we should have to wait until she's died of natural causes." Aisha argued, her eyes narrowing. "The people need change now, people are dying now. Perhaps..." she trailed out and swallowed, for she had lost her train of thought, and cowered under the intense gaze of the prince.
He watched her with an ugly expression on his face. Obviously he was not used to being argued with so vigorously.
"Never have I ever needed to explain my motives, or my actions, to anyone. And I'll not start with a peasant, even if she is dressed like a princess." then he took his napkin from his lap and set it on the table. "Jaak will collect you when we're to go to court. Be prepared to hold your tongue."
With that, and a rather filthy last look for her, Luca stood up and strolled past her through the doors and into the palace. She waited until his footsteps had disappeared before she let out a sigh and rubbed her face. Their first meal as a courting couple had gone swimmingly.
Aisha looked over the food spread on the table, but she wasn't hungry anymore. Even if she was, she knew the conversation would have made her lose her appetite. Swearing lightly under her breath, she stood up from her seat and went to the balcony to stare at the ocean that stretched out before her, and taking the salt air into her lungs.
Her thoughts were suddenly about going to court that day. She would be in the same room where she had made the assassination attempt, and suddenly her stomach gave a jerk. Suppose someone...anyone really, would recognize her? Granted, after Ingvildr's transformation, that was quite frankly impossible, but what if there was some chance that one of the ladies or lords would recognize her, dressed up like a doll as she was?
A sudden voice behind her shocked Aisha out of her daydreaming. "Perhaps you would like to stay and finish your breakfast, my lady?"
Turning around she saw Jaak standing in the doorway, tall and calm as ever, and Aisha gave a deep sigh and shook her head. "No, my appetite has been vanquished."
Jaak took her back to the tower shortly after breakfast, where she stewed for what seemed to be hours. She was soon to be going to court, she would be so close to the Queen and yet she would never have even the slightest chance to advance and make a move to end the wretched witch's life. And why was Luca so low-key and reserved about the whole matter? Hadn't he already revealed that he wished her dead just as she did?
Eventually, so annoyed she could do very little to amuse herself, she napped and when she woke it was the afternoon, and in a few moments Jaak knocked at her door and told her that within a half hour, he would return and take her to Luca's dressing rooms, from which they would go together to court.
Irritated, Aisha went to the dresser and looked for something a little more fancy and attractive, something that would be a little more suitable for court. She chose a long silken sleeveless gown, the colour of sea foam, that fit her perfectly and matched her golden hair. From the jewelry she had discovered by the vanity she chose a simple crystal necklace and attached it at the clasp around her neck. She thought she looked quite presentable, maybe not the most elegantly dressed lady in court but that hardly mattered to her.
As he promised, Jaak returned a half hour later and escorted her away from the tower, careful as he usually was, not to examine too much or too closely. She walked, uncomfortable with the thought that soon she'd have to spend a few hours with Luca, hanging off his arm and smiling like an idiot, while everyone in the room stared at them and decided that yes, they must be in love. She shivered in revolt and scowled the rest of the way through the halls, until Jaak led her towards the end of a hall and stopped at a wide open doorway, covered very skimpily by a gauze curtain.
"Your majesty." Jaak said clearly and waited.
Aisha breathed in and out in slight aggravation, and stuck a fist on her hip, waiting. The more she thought about this, the more angry she became. Perhaps she could steal away from Luca at some point and grab the witch's scepter...maybe then they could do some damage, instead of just wandering around idly like a couple of love-drunk fools.
"What on earth are you wearing?"
Aisha looked and Prince Luca stood at the doorway, the curtain pushed to one side, as he looked her up from head to toe in shock. She looked down at her dress and shrugged.
"It's a dress."
"You're certain you want to wear that one? You'll freeze to death."
Aisha rolled her eyes. She had to bathe in freezing cold mountain stream water back in her village, she knew she could withstand a little bit of coolness in the court.
"I'll be fine." Aisha assured him, and took a moment to look him over. He was dressed in another simple white robed outside, draped over his shoulders and twisted around his narrow waist. He did look awfully stunning, it was just too bad he was so stubborn.
Luca stepped forward, out of the doorway, and came to stand next to her. For a moment they simply looked at each other, like they were complete strangers about to spend the rest of their lives together. Were they really going to do this? Were they really going to fool so many people into believing that they were a courting couple?
Luca cleared his throat, and raised his arm for Aisha to take. "Shall we?"
She breathed in, looked down at his muscled arm, and took gently. From there, Jaak began to lead them towards the courtroom.
Next chapter: An afternoon in the Queen's court. New acquaintances.