Continuing Tales


A Tamora Pierce Story
by Sivvus

Part 17 of 69

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A maid opened the side-door furtively, and a beam of warm golden light fell through it and lit up the two vagabonds. She covered her mouth at the sight of them, and waved them through. When the warmth of the room struck her Daine suddenly felt a wave of sleepiness, and had to will her eyes not to slide shut. Even without having used all of her magic she hadn't eaten for nearly a fortnight, and she didn't know if she'd be able to raise the strength to wake up again.

They had found the house easily enough, but had to spend so much time crouching behind corners and checking for passing townsfolk that it had taken until the early hours of the morning for them to actually reach the peaceful, wealthy-looking street. They had no doubt that if they were spotted by even a single person they would be caught. They were so bedraggled, so frozen and emaciated, that they barely looked human. When they found the house they slipped around to the back gate, past the stables which were built onto the servants' wing of the house, and knocked hesitantly at the kitchen door. It was no wonder the maid had nearly cried out at the sight of them, but they were both so exhausted that they barely noticed her slipping out of the room until she returned.

An old woman rustled into the room behind the maid, her silvery hair gathered into a long braid, and a brocade sleeping robe clutched around her throat. She paused to look at them, but unlike the maid she didn't react past a quick flutter of her eyes. She nodded to the other woman and gestured for them to sit by the fire, tucking her own slippered feet neatly up from the ashes on the floor.

"You need to eat, and then sleep." She said in a steady, calm voice. "It's all arranged for you. You're safe. Your questions can wait, and no-one here will ask you for answers." The maid returned with two bowls of thin porridge, and handed them to them. Daine stared at her portion numbly, her brain refusing to recognise it as food.

"Eat, little one." Numair said, seeing her struggle. She looked up at him, and he took her hand and curved her fingers gently around the spoon. "Eat."

The porridge was good, made with rich milk and sweetened with honey, but she could only manage a few spoonfuls. Numair urged her to eat another, but after that she put the bowl down and pressed a hand to her stomach, feeling obscenely full. The woman watched them in silence, and then took hold of the girl's hand. Daine looked at the woman's withered, white, manicured fingers next to her own, grimy and gnarled hands. Mutely, she let the woman lead her out of the kitchen and up a flight of stairs. The whole house was warm, and silent, and the wood-panelled corridors pressed in on her like the urgency of sleep. She didn't remember falling into bed, only an impossible softness, and then darkness.

She had no idea how long she slept for. When her eyes opened she felt strangely empty, as if she'd finished all her allocated sleep for the year, and would never be able to sleep again. Her arm tingled strangely, and when she raised a hand to the claw marks she found a smooth, magically-healed scar. She sat up and looked around the room, seeing the same wooden panels that she remembered from the corridors, and the wide window that was shut tight against the cold. She stared at it, wondering at the colours that shone through the glass. The sky was blue, and the clouds were yellow, and the black shadows of distant birds danced through it.

The door clicked, and a woman stuck her head through. She grinned widely when Daine looked around, and then disappeared. The girl was just thinking about standing up and following her when the woman reappeared, carrying a covered plate and a cup.

"Ah, you're awake!" She said roundly, handing over the crockery. Daine sipped from the cup, tasting the sweetness of spiced milk. The woman smiled approvingly until she drained the whole glass, and then put the plate down on the table. A maddening scent of cinnamon rose from under the cloth. "You can pick at those later." The maid declared. "Missus says you're to get some flesh on your bones, child! But you'd be wise to let your stomach settle first."

She led Daine into a small anteroom the girl hadn't noticed before, which held a large bathing tub. The maid pulled a cord which hung down from the ceiling, and a score of maids brought in pail after pail of steaming water. Daine let herself be washed, still half-drugged with too much sleep. Despite her long sleep she found her eyes sliding shut as she lay in the warm water. The maid hummed cheerfully to herself as she scrubbed at the girl's hair, rinsing it over and over again until the water ran clear. Daine caught sight of the filthy water and flinched, thinking of the elegant bed and the filth that she must have coated it in. When the maid wrapped her in a thick towel and led her back into her room, though, the bed had already been changed by another one of the many maids.

"You get yourself dressed, duck." The maid said, gesturing at some clothes that had been laid out neatly on the clean sheets. Daine touched the soft fabric hesitantly, but by the time she thought to thank the maid she had disappeared.

She pulled the dress over her head first, struggling until she realised that it was held closed with a tiny line of delicate shell buttons. She scowled and yanked it off her head, undoing the buttons until she could tug it over her shoulders, then doing up the fiddly clasps one by one with fingers that were still split with chilblains. Finally, she knotted the matching girdle fitfully around her waist. Part of her was whispering that she'd never worn a dress this fine before in her life, the other part was irritated that the garment was so impractical. It fit her more tightly than the ragged tunics she'd worn in prison, and she felt almost trapped by it.

She sighed and started to comb her hair, discovering that the covered plate was full of oat biscuits and eating them with growing hunger. Her stomach growled, and even when she'd finished the biscuits she was still ravenous. The dense scent of roasted meat was drifting up the stairs, and she made up her mind to hunt down a proper meal.

Daine was about to leave when she caught sight of something moving in the corner of the room. She gasped and span around, but there was no-one there. There was only a large square of steel polished to a bright shine, the kind of thing she'd seen tucked away in the corners of some of the officials' rooms. She hadn't liked them, then. One man had become two.

But this one was different. It didn't hold a man, but a woman she didn't recognise. She wasn't a tall woman, and she fit inside the square of metal perfectly. A simple green dress fell from her shoulders in a scooping neckline, gathered by a simple knotted girdle at her waist, where it curved out gently over her slight hips and fell to the floor in soft folds. The tips of bare toes peeked from under that skirt, and it was then that Daine realised that she was looking at her own reflection.

She stared at it, dumbfounded. Did her hair really curl like that? Did it really shine so brightly when it was washed, and fall so far down her back when it was released from its braid? Those grey eyes, so wide as they stared at what must surely be a painting- did they really belong to her? She stepped closer, and wondered at her long eyelashes, raising her fingers to her cheeks to touch every freckle that she never knew existed until that moment.

The creature they'd dressed in rags and paraded in the country didn't recognise this woman. No wonder the farmers and soldiers had mocked her. Was this what she was supposed to look like? Another thought made her blush: was this what Numair had glimpsed, when he called her beautiful?

I can't let him see me like this! She thought in mild, nonsensical panic, her hands falling away from her face. I don't look like me anymore!

There was a soft knock at the door, and she jumped and moved guiltily away from the mirror. It didn't occur to her that the knocker wouldn't just come in until they knocked again, and she realised she had to invite them in. She cleared her throat and made a nonsense sound, because she had absolutely no idea what the right words might be.

The maid bustled in with a bundle of clothes over one arm and something held in her other hand. She put the clothes down on the chest at the end of the bed and then turned around, stopping short as she finally caught sight of the girl. Daine looked down at her feet, humiliated, and waited for the woman to laugh at her, or leave.

"I've brought you some shoes, miss." The woman said suddenly in a warm, bossy voice. "Soft shoes, they are, for dancing. Herself asked that I bind your feet up for you first, seein' as how I'm a healer." She clicked her tongue against her teeth when Daine obediently sat down on the edge of the bed and raised her skirts, revealing her broken and gnarled feet. "Aye, that'll take a bit of work, duck. There's only so much the gift can do after years of... well, that's all best left in the past, pet. But not to worry! We have time, and patience, and best of all..." she winked and pulled out a pot, "We have Auntie Bennitte's best balm, don't we?"

Daine nodded mutely, watching Bennitte smoothing the thick paste onto her feet. It was cool, and tingled strangely at first, but when the woman wrapped soft bandages around it the ointment began to emit a soft warmth which made her wriggle her toes in delight. Bennitte smiled and slipped the dancing shoes over the bandages.

"Have you never worn shoes before, miss?" She asked when Daine hesitantly put her weight on the soft soles. The girl shook her head, and then shrugged. She supposed she must have, when she was a child, but she couldn't remember...! Her feet felt as warm as if she'd curled them up under her blanket on a summer's night, and she couldn't remember them ever feeling this comfortable. It was as if the clouds had come down from the sky and wrapped themselves around her toes! She smiled and thanked the woman, who grinned widely at the single word.

"Not used to strangers, are you duck?" She didn't wait for an answer, but bobbed a curtsey and turned to leave. "Well, you just remember Auntie Bennitte, for like me or not I'll be here with you twice a day!"

The shoes did the trick. Daine didn't want to be seen, but she couldn't sit alone in her room when every step made her smile in wonder. She opened the door carefully and slipped through, looking for the main hall. The place looked different in daylight. The wooden halls that had seemed so dark and close the night before, now seemed warm and cosy against the frosty winter sunlight. Fires roared in large fireplaces in the hallways, so that no cold could creep in through the doors, and although for a noble's house the place was small, everything in it was elegant and beautiful to Daine's eyes. She stumbled a few times when her shoes brushed against the thick rugs, and ended up holding on to the stair banister for support. The combination of shiny wooden stairs and the slippery cloth shoes might defeat her, but she wouldn't surrender without a fight!

"Do you need some help, miss?" She looked back along the corridor towards the voice and there was a sharp intake of breath. "Daine? Is that you! You look..!" Numair collected himself and managed to look nonchalant when he sauntered towards her, but he couldn't stop his face from breaking into a grin when he looked her up and down.

"Don't laugh at me," she said darkly, looking away. He laughed, and then realised she was being serious and took her hand.

"Laugh at you? Daine, you look beautiful." He said, his voice sincere, his eyes honest. She flushed and looked at her feet, and wondered how far she might be able to run in these shoes. He picked up on her embarrassment and leaned in conspiratorially. "Don't worry magelet, I won't say anything if you don't want me to. But I think other people might notice, too!"

"They don't know what I'm supposed to look like." She muttered. He opened his mouth to retort to that, and then shrugged.

"Can't you walk in those shoes?" He asked instead, gesturing at the soft brown slippers. She coloured and hid them under her skirts, and then realised she was being foolish and nodded. He grinned. "Liar. I saw you arguing with the stairs."

"This is so stupid." She said, humiliated, and sat down on the top step to start untying the laces on one of the shoes. "I'd rather have broken feet than a broken neck, no matter what the lady says."

"Luckily, it's not a choice you'll have to make." The man said lightly, picking her up easily. She gasped and clung to him, instinctively made nervous by the height of him next to the steepness of the stairs. He waited for her to relax, and carried her downstairs. At the bottom of the flight she expected him to let her go straight away, but he hesitated and held her a little more closely.

"Perhaps I shouldn't put you down," he joked, but the words seemed a little forced. "Looking like that, I might never get you back!"

"Of course you would!" She said without thinking, and then reddened. Their argument was never far from her mind, and if he was just being playful she didn't want to ruin it by reminding him of the things he'd said. She really wanted to kiss him at that moment, but she wouldn't, because she knew it was forbidden. But she wanted him to know that he was important, that she wasn't some flighty girl who ran off with strangers because of a pretty green dress. She rested her forehead against his, and looped her arms around his shoulders, and smiled when his arms tightened around her back.

If nothing else, she thought, it can be like it was in the prison. Before it got complicated. No-one could object to that, not even him!

"Daine..." He started, his voice quiet, "When I said..."

Someone cleared their throat loudly, and they both looked around with a start. A manservant waited to direct them into the hall, and had obviously felt the need to interrupt. The girl wanted to slap him. She looked at Numair enquiringly, but the moment had passed, and whatever he'd started to say had danced away unsaid.

"Is your shoe tied on properly?" The mage asked. His voice was playfully over-solicitous for the benefit of the servant. Daine nodded, and he smiled and set her neatly on her feet. "Let me know if you have any more trouble with the stairs."


A Tamora Pierce Story
by Sivvus

Part 17 of 69

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