4 Coloine (continued)
No one came to dress me, so I dithered for a bit over what might offend the God-Empress least, then realized I can’t begin to guess what her twisted mind might find offensive, and put on my nicest clothing that wasn’t a dress. It turned out I didn’t need to run away from her, but I still think it was a good precaution.
When I stepped out of my room, four soldiers in chicken helmets were once again standing there, waiting for me, and I stepped into their protective square and marched away. This time, no one had cleared the corridors, and people had to jump out of our way because the soldiers moved as if they had a walk-through-walls pouvra and didn’t care who they used it on.
Most of the people we passed gaped at us, making me wonder if they knew who I was, or if they were just curious about anyone who rated such a guard. Or (this has only just occurred to me) they thought I was a prisoner being marched off for execution. I was too busy being nervous to pay much attention to them.
We went to the alcove leading to the public areas of the palace, and I thought we might be going to the throne room again, but the soldiers took me through a series of arched hallways, wide and tall enough to admit the loenerel but paved in a checkerboard pattern of black marble and green travertine, and into a breezy, light chamber whose windows all stood open.
Gauzy pale blue drapes billowed as warm air flowed into the room, fighting with the cooling kathana for dominance. Seven identical cedar wardrobes—I like the smell of cedar, but this was like being hit in the face by a warm, pillowy brick of the stuff—lined the blue walls. I don’t have to describe the rest; the God-Empress likes monochromatic decorating schemes.
The God-Empress herself stood at one of the windows, letting the air blow her filmy white dress (more of a long, loose shift) around her. Her golden hair was loose and hung to her knees, and I had the beginnings of a pang of jealousy at how smooth it was that was suppressed by a memory of Cederic winding his fingers through my hair and telling me how much he loved its color and thickness.
And then, to my shock, I actually felt sorry for the God-Empress, who has no one to love her. It didn’t last long, thanks to what happened next, but it’s true, she’s more to be pitied than envied. And more to be feared than either of those things.
The soldiers left me at the door, and I walked forward, not sure whether I should draw attention to myself or in what way I’d do so. But the sound of my footsteps on the smooth, caramel-colored wood floor alerted her, and she turned, shrieked in delight, and flung herself at me. I very nearly went over beneath her weight. “Sesskia!” she exclaimed. “Isn’t this the most beautiful, perfect day? I’m so happy to see you! And I know you must be so excited, but everything in its time, yes?”
She clapped three times, and a file of servant women emerged from a hidden door near the windows. “Clothing for my dear sister,” the God-Empress commanded, and women flung open the wardrobes to reveal gowns in every shade of the rainbow and a few never found in nature, all of them made from silks or brocades or velvets, some richly embroidered, others studded with gems, every gown fit for a queen.
I stood, unable to speak, as women began bringing gowns to the God-Empress for her approval. The God-Empress said, “You must tell me which ones you like! Isn’t this fun, dressing up, when there are all these beautiful gowns? And then you can help me choose mine!” She began holding dresses up to my body, flinging some away, handing others back to the servants with a “Sesskia will want to try this on” or “Oh, this is divine, I simply must see if it fits me!”
Despite her words, I didn’t ever have time to express an opinion, not that it mattered to me which of these many gowns I ended up wearing. They were all exquisite, but completely impractical, and I spent my time while the God-Empress debated which was more my color, lilac or lavender (Note: they are EXACTLY THE SAME COLOR) wondering what she had in mind. Were we going to tour the city again, this time dressed like royalty? Or was all this simply for the sake of some elaborate tea party? Of course, the truth was far worse, but at the time I was innocently curious and wary.
The gown the God-Empress eventually chose for me was beautiful and, surprisingly, suited me well. It was silk, fitted through the bodice and waist to leave my shoulders bare, flowing softly to my ankles. It was pale blue at the top and became increasingly dark until it was midnight blue at the hem, as if the color had all bled from the top of my gown and pooled at the bottom.
I was admiring myself in the full-length mirror and thinking that I should find a way to wear this back to the mages’ wing, where Cederic could see me, when the God-Empress reached around my neck and said, “I know Mother would want you to wear these,” and I nearly fell over because she had clasped several fortunes’ worth of diamonds, not one of them smaller than ten carats, around my neck as carelessly as if they were a child’s shell necklace.
For about five seconds I really wanted to keep those diamonds. Then common sense asserted itself and reminded me that there was a good chance the God-Empress would look at me ten minutes from now, accuse me of stealing her mother’s diamonds, and take them off by way of removing my head.
I was also trying not to think about what it meant that she clearly believed we were sisters today. The God-Empress has no family, having had all her siblings executed when she came to the throne, so my being her “sister” was no guarantee of safety.
The servants found me a pair of silver shoes with an impractically high heel that the God-Empress rhapsodized over and that I could therefore not refuse, then I stood in the corner (“Don’t muss yourself!” the God-Empress had shrieked when I tried to sit down) and watched her choose a gown. “You must be the most beautiful today, of course, but that doesn’t mean I can’t be lovely, too!” the God-Empress exclaimed, and proceeded to choose a sleeveless gown of dazzling white, crusted with pearls in sizes ranging from as small as pinheads to more than an inch in diameter, that made her look more beautiful than ever.
Then the servants arranged our hair, brushing mine until it shone and then winding it around my head and pinning it fiercely in place with silver combs sparkling with more diamonds. I stood in front of the mirror again, admiring myself, and the God-Empress came to stand beside me, took my hand, and squeezed it. “I’m so happy for you,” she whispered. “Thank you for allowing me to join you for this perfect day.”
to be continued…