I should have taken it as a sign when the first snowflake whirled by, doing cartwheels through the air like a demented pixie. The gray sky overhead was more fitting for a winter’s day in Decerian, rather than the hottest summer we’d had in years. People grumbled into their ale mugs about the elemental mages in the south fouling the weather because of the war. While priests prophesied the anger of their various gods as the reason for the bizarre storm, due to the transgressions of everyone from the common man to the king. In my experience, though, the gods were never happy unless the priests’ coffers were full.
Still, I’d gone out despite the churning in my gut, which should tell you something about my level of good sense. Children ran wildly through the streets, shouting and trying to catch the white flakes with their tongues. Being that the streets were unusually empty because of the snow, they could play freely without being underfoot of horses or carriages. Mothers watched their children, and eyed the sky warily; ready to pull their children indoors at the first sign of trouble.
The thing was, the first sign was already here, floating through the air and tousled by brief gusts of chilled air.
“I donnae like it,” a voice grumbled near my elbow, the accent a thick brogue found in some of the isles in the north. Only the Northerners could hear the subtle differences in the accents between the different isles, unless you were someone who kept company with them, that was.
“You do not like anything,” I replied, my tone clipped. It was a little snippy of me, though my own cut-glass accent surely didn’t help matters. I always sounded snippy.
My companion harrumphed. “That’s nae true. I like ale.”
“Point. However, I have rescheduled this appointment six times now, and the dressmaker is becoming rather cross with me. Not to mention father. He had that look about him the last time I told him I cancelled. You know the one, Evin, where he pulls out his pocketwatch and opens it?” I grimaced at the memory.
“Aye, I know the one. Then he holds it in his hand, but does nae look at it. I think he knows it’s too expensive to break, so it keeps him calm.” Evin chuckled. Then his freckled face sobered as he took in the sky again. “Still, today is nae a day I care for, Ria.”
I blew out a breath, but didn’t answer. How could I? I agreed with him, but what else could I do? So, I squared my shoulders, lifted my chin, and put a little more force than necessary into my steps.
Evin raised a single, reddish-gold eyebrow, but didn’t comment. We walked in silence for a moment. The only sounds on the street were the echoes of children’s laughter against the buildings, and the creaking of Evin’s dark brown, leather armor as he moved.
“So, did the pansy get his way with the color for ye wedding?” he asked, changing the subject.
I nearly tripped, and had to cover my snort of laughter with my white gloved hand. ‘Pansy’ was Evin’s favorite term for my betrothed.
“We settled on an atrocious blend of purple and blue that will leave the poor bridesmaids looking as though they are bruised,” I said.
In truth, I didn’t care about the wedding preparations, as evidenced by multiple cancellations for my dress fitting. It was an aristocratic match made to strengthen our families, and what little control I had over the whole distasteful affair, I used to make things difficult. Petty, but I’d take my amusements where I could.
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve had no illusions about what to expect once I was old enough to marry off to some Duke, Count, Earl, or what-have-you. I wasn’t a princess in some fairystory, pining away for a marriage made for love. At this point, however, I would at least like to settle for, able to be in the same room without wanting to smack the ever-present sneer from his thin-lipped mouth.
Evin growled. “I want to yank that kerchief from him and stuff it down his gullet.”
Every time we met my betrothed, Ashcroft, Evin was my chaperone. And any time Evin came within ten feet of Ashcroft, Ashcroft would pull out his kerchief, let out a delicate snort, and hold the kerchief over his beaky nose. Evin didn’t smell bad, by any stretch of the imagination, but it didn’t stop Ashcroft from being a pompous little peacock.
“Yes, well. We cannot always get what we want. At least you won’t have to lie with him,” I observed.
Evin’s face and ears reddened, and he refused to meet my eyes as he mumbled something under his breath.
“What was that?” I asked, holding a hand to my ear.
“Ye speak too bold for a woman of your standing,” Evin said, louder this time.
I scoffed. “Like anyone listens to me, anyhow.”
Before he could answer, we arrived at the dress shop. The little bit of joy I had from poking Evin’s male sensibilities, shriveled like the grapes Cook put on a tray and left in the sun.
“Well, off with ye,” Evin said, only mildly sympathetic after my ribbing.
I gave him the glare he deserved, and then marched through the door. A sign in the window, in front of curtains concealing half of the glass, proclaimed: ‘No Men Allowed,’ which left Evin outside in the unseasonably cold weather. Served him right.
Once inside, a young girl offered to take my coat, dipping into a low curtsy. She wouldn’t meet my eyes, and her voice was hushed in the dim shop. There were a few oil lamps out, though not many. They probably depended on the light from the sun during the summer months, and the grey day forced them to pull out lamps from storage.
After giving the mousy girl my coat, I strode to the center of the shop, where the head dressmaker stood by a pedestal, waiting for me. She was a shapely woman, and a far cry from my own willowy frame. Her hair was a dark chocolate, pulled high up on her head, with tight ringlets cascading to her nape. My own hair was a fine, ashen blonde, that refused to hold a curl the way a child refused to eat anything green. It was currently in a loose bun that my maidservant deemed, ‘artfully messy,’ though I suspected it was her way of saying, ‘it’s the best anyone could do with your pitiful locks.’ Her eyes were a rich cinnamon, and mine were a washed out grey. I’m not sure we could have been more different if we’d tried.
“How lovely to see you, Lady Deering,” she said, the undertone of her words implying, ‘finally’. She curtsied, as was expected of someone of her station to mine, though not as deep as the mousy girl.
Madame Draper was the finest dressmaker in Wolvesford, and one of the heads of the Merchant’s Guild. It afforded her some privilege when interacting with the Aristocracy. Though from the glowing embers of resentment in her gaze when she stood after I gave her a small nod, not as much as she’d like.
“Come,” she said, clapping her hands to the four or five assistants hovering around us, “let us begin.”
Then a whirlwind of activity descended on me that fairly took my breath away. Or at least it would have, if the corset they put me in hadn’t done that first. Corsets were a man’s pleasure, and a woman’s painful inconvenience, but it would cause a scandal if I even dared suggest we forgo the evil torture device. The one I’d worn to the shop was as loose as I could manage without offending, but the one for my wedding dress was so tight, it almost managed to give me the appearance of hips.
Once into her craft, the air of resentment from Madame Draper faded, and she and the girls made quick work of me during the two hour appointment. When the second hour concluded, Madame Draper sighed.
“It’s the best we can do, for now,” she said, though it sounded as though she was speaking more about me than the dress. “You’ll need another appointment in two weeks for the first fitting. Do not cancel, and do not gain any weight,” she said, tottering on the edge of propriety.
Not having said anything for the duration of the appointment, I didn’t see the point in changing that now. I nodded once, turned on my heel, and exited the shop. It was rude of me, but I doubt she was surprised; I had cancelled six times. I hated dress fittings for normal, every day clothing. For a wedding dress, I was being pushed to my limit of tolerance.
Evin was nodding off, leaning against the wall of the shop. The street was empty for lunch time, the children gone in to eat, and the adults still at work, or taking their own meals in one of the eating establishments next to the merchants’ district.
“You are a piss poor guard, falling asleep like that,” I snapped, needing to vent my pent-up frustration on someone.
“Who said I was asleep?” he rumbled, cracking open an eye. He gave me a once-over, and the annoyance at my words faded from him. “That bad?”
I did a fair imitation of his growl, which my stomach echoed.
He laughed. “Let’s get ye home. I’m sure Cook will have something tasty–” His words were cut off as a masked man appeared from the small, darkened ally next to Madame Draper’s shop, and hit him over the head from behind with a small club. Evin stumbled, his eyes going wide, and he reached for the sword at his hip, but with another bash he fell to the ground like a sack of potatoes.
I reached out with a startled cry, but something covered my mouth, and everything went hazy. I knew I should have cancelled this stupid appointment… The last thing I saw was a pair of rough, brown leather boots, much like Evin’s, and then everything went black.