Paved with Mirrors (Part 3 of 3)
Solshae had taken Lin to be joking or fantasising at first, but she realised quickly that she was in earnest, on both of their accounts.
“How?” she demanded, conducting every such conversation in cloistered whispers.
“Well, you shall go masked and costumed. And I know a place, but I will need you to take a message to Lieroth” – the young man who’d captured her affections – “otherwise he won’t know where to go.”
“What if he doesn’t come?” Solshae asked, forgetting for a moment what she knew about men.
“Then I shall be lonely, bored, disappointed. But I’ll pick up the pieces and redouble my search. What is life if we never reach for anything?”
Solshae was terrified. On all accounts. But wasn’t this what she’d dreamed of? And so, as the nights lengthened and the snows thickened, she took what time she could to sit at her writing desk, composing what she hoped with all her heart would be a grand poem, something worthy of a master. It was to be the story an impossible love, a young woman crippled in body, and wedded to a duty of stark importance; a young man who had suffered grievous loss, whose heart was broken and – in his mind – well past fixing. And all the world, all social conventions, would rise up against their romance, advice, violence, shunning, conniving, lying: all these weapons wielded against them and still the two should win out in the end, become lovers, enter marriage, bear children.
But there was limited time on stage. So the poem must capture all this in as few lines as it may, and obliquely, in the fashion of modern poetry, all hints and gestures and fine lexicology from beneath which the story would peek, ducking and diving to avoid being stared upon directly.
And she practiced these lines with Lin, in their bedroom, late at night. Over and over, editing and testing, rehearsing, rethinking.
Lin insisted to her: “This is beautiful.”
“Are you sure it is? Are you really sure?”
“Of course, I am. Tomorrow we will go to the South Quarter and find you a costume.”
And if Elignathios found out? If he discovered what they were up to? Solshae feared that she would be thrown out of the house, cast out for good. Perhaps Lin would be forgiven, a proper daughter of the house, but her part in this: a pimp she was – that’s how the family would be see it. And a woman poet, besides. That would be too much, surely, for Elignathios to weather.
“Ah, but he won’t know. Not until you wish it, after it’s done, and you were so fabulous that he’ll be honoured by your true identity.” She lifted a mask up from amongst those laid out at the stall. “He will never recognise you in this. And with your hair veiled in a net of glass beads. We’ll need to sew your costume into a pouch in your cloak. Or indeed, you cloak might become your costume, turn it inside out and there: you are dressed! Elignathios none the wiser.”
“Don’t you fear anything?”
“Many things. I was shaking when I walked in the door that first time, when I was still Dosni, when I was first invited by Elignathios. I nearly didn’t go. And imagine if that’d been my choice.”
“You’d be dead by now.”
“Many times over. So you see: it pays to be bold.”
“Your plan for WinterHeart is more than bold.”
“Scandalous. But I know what I’m about. I know this’ll work out all as it should. I have faith in that. And so should you.”
But I have more to lose than you.
Or did she? There was still a life of sorts for her to go back to if they cast her aside. Still Meli. Still a family she might contact. Work she knew how to do. If Lin were cast aside, she’d have nowhere to go, no-one to go to. Her human life having aged and died while she’d been away from it. Nothing left. Except me. Solshae swore to herself that she would look after her sister – such as she now saw her – if the worst came to pass.
But in the meantime they sat in secret, sewing, writing, reading.
And as the night grew closer, Lin wrote a letter. She folded and ribboned it, sealed the ribbon at its t-junction, and pressed it into Solshae’s palm. “When we get there, and once Elignathios is distracted, find Lieroth, give him this letter. Just put it in his hand and urge him to read it at once. It explains everything. He’ll know what to do if that’s what he wants.”
Solshae had to ask: “Have you ever done… this… before?”
Lin cackled. “Why, Solshae, do you ask me if I’m a virgin?”
“But you must be a little of practice.”
“I suppose so, but has it changed very much?”
Solshae tried to find words, but stumbled over any that flitted through her head.
“Oh, Soshae! Wait. Are you still… pure?”
“Perhaps. All right, yes. I tried to be… sensible.” She’d taken a kiss or two in her time, and she’d been the subject of all-too-many gropes. There’d been one man, pressed against her and hard like a firestone, but his eyes had been equally hard, and she’d always been aware of the risks.
“You’re not even curious?”
“Of course. But… I didn’t have the means, the circumstances. It would have been disastrous to let myself end up with child.” Such as you are doing. She didn’t mean to imply that and yet surely it must come across.
“We shall have to work on that. But one matter at a time. If you’re going to go on stage – and I have arranged you to be fourth in the line-up, you’ll need a stage-name. Something respectable.”
“A Faceless name.”
“Do you have one in mind?”
“I… no, not really.”
“I’ll choose then. Nilsharianne.”
“Is that… somebody… someone you know.”
Lin looked away for a moment, considering. “It was one I considered for myself once.”
On the night. Solshae felt as if she were truly somebody else. She was dressed in a fantasy of gold and obsidian, a mix of fire colours with darkness. And beside her stood Lin, wearing a winter-sky blue sewn all over with silver discs. Her hair was swept up into a tower of sorts, buttressed with frothy ribbons and twinkling glass. She was stunning. Feeling the letter pressed between her wrist and inner sleeve, Solshae wondered how any man could resist – if this Liernoth got so much as a glimpse of her tonight he would answer that letter in his flesh without a doubt.
The two squeezed hands as they hurried off down the path to the carriage.
The WinterHeart ball was a glittering occasion. It was everything Solshae had fantasised about, and it was more. The expensive silks and floating candles that graced the hall; the massive, layered, frilled, garlanded dresses; the hats, wide-brimmed and covered in such a collection of ornaments and trinkets. Many of the guests had brought exotic animals with them, or even exotic servants. Everyone trying to outdo the others with their opulence, their importance, their grandeur.
A small part of Solshae realised that she should be disgusted with this, contrasting it to the poverty she’d lived in, the hardship she’d grown up with, the danger. All these colours, at whose expense where they bought? And what of the grey, stunted lives that held this edifice up, that kept this clockwork dance spinning and spitting gold? But a different part of her, a newer part, was drawn in, awed. She was willing to be swept up in the music, to gaze with saucer-eyes upon the outlandish feast. She let Elignathios select treats for her to try, and listened as he told her of their origin. A young man approached and requested a dance – requesting it first of Elignathios and only then broaching the question with her.
Solshae nodded, when Elignathios nodded. She felt a coldness in the young man’s hands, but a warmth in his eyes. And he danced well. She was glad Lin had taught her the steps – she’d have looked such a fool otherwise. The stranger bowed to her when they were done and asked if he might dance with her again this evening.
She gave the traditional curtsey. “Of course.”
“You are quite a swan.”
If you knew! But how many more of these Faceless were once from origins as meek and muddied as hers? “You’re graceful enough yourself.”
And by now Elignathios had moved off on his own to seek out old friends and political allies. This was the moment. And Lin was there, grabbing her wrist: we may not have very long. She was scanning the crowd. “Look. There he is. Over there. Do you see him?”
“I see him.”
“Take the letter. I’ll be gone before you return. Make excuses to Elignathios if you have to – a matter of feminine delicacy, that ought to do it.” She clapped her hands against Solshae’s foreams. “And good luck out there tonight. You’ll be wonderful. And I’ll hear you, even if I’m not, well… done.”
“Are you sure…”
“I’m always sure.”
And so she went off on her errand. She wondered if a truly good friend, a good sister, would have kept Lin from her task, would have saved her from herself. Because how can she really know what she’s getting into? And still, she took a direct path to this handsome man she didn’t know. She walked up to him – this wealthy, important creature – and she held out the letter.
“Take it. Read it quickly.”
“What is this?”
“The letter will tell all.”
“Who is the writer.”
“Is something the matter?”
“No. It is good….” news was the wrong word, but she couldn’t think of anything to replace it. Solshae screened her silence with a quick smile, then she gathered up and skirts and darted away, leaving Lieroth with his letter and his decision.
Solshae ate and drank and danced the evening away, she listened to conversations amongst strangers, and she walked in a garden blooming with colours. She walked along balconies strewn with petals and hanging with gleaming chains.
Later into the night there were performances. Solshae watched the magician with interest, trying to understand how he did his tricks – how much was illusion and how much was true sorcery? And she listened to the velvet voice of the singer. She glanced around, trying to see if there were any sign of Lin, trying to imagine where she might be, and if her plans had come to fruition. There was no sign of her. And no sign of Lieroth either. Perhaps that meant something.
A juggler came on, all in bright colours, and his movements were quicker than her eyes. He tumbled as well as juggled. He leaped and cartwheeled and bent his limbs in ways that made her wince.
There was clapping and cheering.
And then the hall quietened down. Solshae held her breath.
“And now, a newcomer, the poet, Nilsharianne.”
Masked, costumed, heart beating like wings, Solshae made her way down to the stage.
Picture credit/discredit: author's own work