The woman returned quickly, huffing and puffing in the Tralis humidity, and abruptly threw a bundle of clothes at them.
“Peel off those leathers, put these on.” She sneered at their woods-voln garb. “A second-skin to you, like as not, but watch me not giving a shit!”
She had a strange turn of phrase that confused Eris for a moment, but she understood the city-voln’s sentiment. Eris shook out the clothes and passed Orrin a long man’s shirt in a shabby cream colour and a pair of patched leggings. For her there was a dress, the twin of the one worn by the sneering woman and just as big.
“Lios! Just bloody well get it on!” The woman snapped again.
Eris shrugged it over her head, glad of the tent-like size of it as she peeled off her leather trousers from underneath. On her slight but tall body it hung like a vast sack and she looked down at it dumbly.
“Good Lios. Here!” The woman threw her a ball of yarn from her pocket. It had been dyed a dull blood like red brown. “Wrap this about ye! Make a belt to bring it in!”
Winding the thread about her waist held the dress in a bit, but it was still a lumpy messy solution. When Eris was finally done, she looked up in exhausted defeat at Orrin’s tired but laughing eyes. “Not one word!” She hissed at him.
“Not a single one.” he smirked.
The woman was staring at Eris’ now bare feet. Both of her feet, the normal and the wyrd. “Good Lios!” She breathed and fanned herself. “What does that mad bitch want with the cursed likes of ye?!”
No answer was given, and the woman went back to her task of ushering them in to where Estille… Trienne… was waiting. The inside of the house showed signs of previous glory, but they were worn so very thin by both years of neglect and the damp weather of Tralis. Fine wallpapers with patterns of swirling leaves shaped in velvet were now the breeding grounds for slick patches of mould. The staircase leading upwards creaked and softened chunks of spongy wood fell from the bannisters as they tried to use it to support their weary legs. On the first floor were a variety of doors leading into bedrooms, and another staircase, but the angry woman took them to the nearest door which opened into a large room draped with stained and ragged lengths of silk and lit by an array of candles on blackly tarnished silver holders. The women lounging inside were the same ones who’d leant down and called to them from the balcony. Some of them languidly played games against each other with watermarked cards, while others fanned and preened in front of warped mirrors. Estille was the only one of the ladies to stand up and to walk towards them. She looked thinner than she had in Bara, and she wore much more rouge, but her proud ways had not changed at all.
“Who are these tramps from the street, Anpi?”
“These are the ones your ladyship asked for!”
“They surely cannot be! Because I am certain that I asked for our honoured guests to be washed and dressed before they were brought to me. These are filthy and ill-dressed people from the street, so these simply cannot be them! Do they look sparks to you, Anpi dearest?!”
Eris did not understand the term ‘sparks’ but she saw the anger and frustration on the washer woman’s face. Estille threw an order at her again.
“Fill a bath in my room, and let us see if these two street-amblers can be turned into the valued guests that I was seeking!”
Eris and Orrin were led again to another smaller room, this time there was a four poster bed inside, decorated all about with grand but frayed brocade. They stood awkwardly waiting as the washer woman staggered in and out of the room with heated water in a large pitcher, bringing it up from somewhere below in the large house, swearing under her breath. Too unsure of who was listening, they kept silent, wavering slightly as they stayed on their feet in Estille’s room. Finally the bath tub standing on four lions’ paw was filled and Estille came in to close the door on the indignant washer woman now out in the hallway and to greet them properly.
“Orrin Storyteller!” Estille began, walking towards him with open hands. He allowed her to take his hands in hers and to gush over him. “It has been much too long!”
“Since Bara… and all that happened there.”
“Hush, more of that later. I am just pleased to see old friends.”
‘Friends’? Eris wondered. Jerekyn’s death had come about because of Eris and her true friends! Was Estille really pleased to see them, or playing a role within a role? Who was this ‘Trienne’ and could they really trust her?!
“You travel with the wild girl now?” Estille looked Eris over, taking in the ill-fitting plain dress, “Good lord what has that old bitch put you in?! We must fix this at once!”
Eris might not have liked the billowing thing that she’d been tied into, but looking at the slight silk slip that barely covered Estille’s pale city-voln skin she hoped that she wasn’t going to be expected to wear the very same thing!
She had time at least. Orrin was ushered into the bathtub first, Estille giggling as Eris averted her eyes from his complete nakedness as he stepped up and into it. The woman however remained by his side, kneeling down to draw the sweetly scented water over his shoulders with a flannel, clipping his ragged beard with silver handled scissors, and barely stopping speaking even to draw a breath.
“You have landed on your feet now Orrin Storyteller! You are returned to the days of milk and honey, just as we had them in Bara! Here is a place to rest your head. Here are beautiful ladies to help to unknit this oh-so serious brow! We might not have the great wealth of the temples, but this place of worship has its own treats. Fine wines and sweet meats. A warm embrace from any who take your fancy. A safe place for your charge. The ladies here do not care that she’s woods-voln, they will still welcome her as sister-”
She was cut off by Orrin, who grabbed her wandering hand by the wrist and held it still.
“She will not be your sister!”
“No… no, perhaps not. But we can keep her safe from prying city-voln eyes-”
“We are not staying.” Eris said bluntly. Orrin nodded, and raised himself from the bath, leaving Estille’s gentle ministrations behind. He quickly dried himself and wrapped the towel about his waist, looking about for something less revealing to wear.
“Please, stay. For now. A moment of peace before you travel onwards. I will bring you clothes, but please stay.” Estille entreated him. But it was his tired legs that took him to the bed and he sat there, watching her cautiously.
Estille turned her attention to Eris, and urged her to undress and to take her bath. Her words were soft and Eris felt the temptation of succumbing to her gentle hands. She pulled at the yarn length that made her belt and let the huge servant’s dress billow to the floor before stepping into the bath herself. Orrin looked away as she had during his bath.
“Good, good.” Cooed Estille, and she set to work, slowly undoing Eris’ braids before bringing a silver backed hairbrush to work through the length of her dark hair. Unbidden Eris’ eyes started to close in pleasure.
“Wait… The temple in Bara banned whore houses. How come Tralis leaves you be?” Orrin said with heavy suspicion. “What is this place?”
Estille laughed, the sound like the peal of bells. “It’s just a whore house, Orrin. Fifteen women who share themselves with those who ask nicely and who have the coin. Twelve city-voln and three Denosians-”
“Denosians?!” Orrin said in surprise. “In a whore house? I saw no golden skin!”
Eris knew little about the islanders used as slaves by wealthy city-voln. Only that, as Orrin said, their skin was meant to be as golden as a Lios coin. But they were in fact far more valuable than a single golden coin!
“Those girls you will likely not see during your time here. Marchan cares for them personally and takes them to their assignments through secret paths. Yes, this is a place of love at a price. But Marchan’s ambition will change Tralis, and the rest of the cities in time.”
“You were more than just a whore in Bara.” Orrin said flatly.
“And I am more than just a whore now.” She said sweetly, and it was a second before Orrin and Eris realised that the cloth she’d been using to clean Eris’ muddy skin had been exchanged in the blink of an eye for a thin blade that she now held near, but not against, Eris’ skin. Her tiredness vanished for a moment, the slow hum of near sleep replaced in her ears by the beating of her blood.
“I was – I am – a blade for hire, Orrin. I always wore silks, and I always used men’s weaknesses against them. The city has changed, but I have not.”
“And this ‘Marchan’ has your marker now? Since Jerekyn died?”
There was a curious smile on Estille stained lips. “Indeed.”
The knife was quickly and skilfully put away, somewhere in the flimsy silks of her garment. “I will not harm your healer. Your friend. I hope in time we might come to be friends too, Eris?”
Eris looked up into the cool grey eyes of the assassin. “My friends do not lie to me. Or try to use me for their own ends.”
“Is that so? Because the Pierson I met again in Bara that last time struck me as the kind of man who has a long game in mind. And you will be a tool in his plans, I am certain of it.”
Eris glared at her. “You don’t know him anymore. The once priest on the way to the Front isn’t who he is. He is Atta!”
Estille languidly stirred the water in the bath with her finger-tips. “And what’s that, girl? Some kind of woods-voln thing?”
“The Atta are-” She stopped herself. She didn’t trust Estille at all, and would not tell her about her people. “The Atta is just a woods-voln word for ‘changed by life and time.” She lied and hoped the woman had never heard her call herself ‘Atta-Sutith’ in Bara and wouldn’t guess it meant something else. “City-voln are like the bricks of their cities, they do not change!”
“Is that so? Tell me girl, are you Atta? Are you changed? Is that why you now have such long, long arms and legs? Orrin, did you know?
Orrin was leaning heavily against the nearest pillar of the bed, “I know.”
“Did you want to look older girl? Is that why you did it? I can understand that. When I younger than you are now I studied my mother’s way of doing her hair, of making up her face. I could show you how to dress yourself to look more… womanly.”
“Leave her be.” Orrin muttered, his eyes lowered. “City-voln grown roses have nothing on the wildflowers that I have seen in the woods.”
Estille giggled, “Is that so! Oh Orrin!”
Estille began to wash Eris’ hair with liquids and flakes of powder that Eris did not recognise. The pressure of the woman’s fingers on her scalp as she worked the soaps through the lengths of her hair urged her more and more towards sleep. Once it was all rinsed out, Estille patted her cheek gently and helped her from her bath and into a long thin gown of pale pink cotton, tied about the waist with a braided length of silk.
Eris took a place at the end of the bed next to Orrin. He had his eyes closed as he leaned heavily on the column and his hands lay limply at his side. She felt her eyes dropping too as Estille combed out the last of the knots from her hair and whispered to her. The words merged with her dreams.