“Suka, please stop staring out of the window. It’s rude, and unbecoming.” The young woman turned away from the window, and let the drapes fall back into place.
“Do we have to keep the drapes closed, Gehne? It makes it so dreary in here.” She sat in a chair by a bookshelf, and picked up one of the much-thumbed volumes. “I wish you would let me stay out in the sunlight more, you know how much I enjoy it.”
“Yes,” the older woman replied, smiling wryly, “and I know how quickly it ruins your complexion. Your mother would never forgive me if you appeared at a ball or a dinner with freckles or Suld forbid a sunburn. You wouldn’t want to do that to your old friend would you?:
Suka smiled, and put the book down. “Don’t play that faithful-oldd-nurse bit on me, Gehne, you know I won’t fall for it. But you’re right, I wouldn’t want to draw any ire down upon you, so I will keep my face out of the sun when I can. But thank you for letting me go up on the deck this morning, the wind and air felt so wonderful!”
Gehne went back to reading the book that she had put down when the younger woman had opened the curtains, and Suka stood again, wandering around the suite. She glanced over at the woman on the couch, and discerning that she was not watching too closely, Suka slipped out of her shoes, and dug her toes into the thick pile of the carpet. She picked up the book she had left on the table and carefully put it back into its place on the shelf.
“Do you think my father will be back when we return?” she asked casually. Gehne did not look up, but shrugged non-comitally. “Who can say? His trips are never by any set pattern, you know that. Please stop pacing, it’s making me nervous. You’ve been edgy ever since we set out the second time, what’s wrong?”
Suka ran her hands nervously over her hair; Gehne had pinned it up in two small buns at the back of her head, each bun enclosed in a small bronze interlace. “I don’t know. I thought I saw a man looking at me, and his eyes gave me the chills. I’ve never seen green eyes before, I didn’t know that you could have eyes that color. As soon as he turned toward me, I looked away, and I don’t think he noticed, but something about him…” She shuddered, her own intense pjurple eyes closing for a moment. “I havent’ seen him on board since then, so I think he was with the Temaltans, which would explain the eyes, I suppose. If it’s a color native to them, it wouldn’t have spread to the other lands.”
“For the last time, child, please sit down, or go into one of the parlours! It makes me edgy just to watch you. Why don’t you try on some of the new dresses your mother got you? She was so happy to find them in time for this trip, it would make her so happy to know that you wore them on board the ship. She’ll be even happier if you come home with a young man with an eye for a wife, but that may be asking a little too much even of those gowns.”
Suka laughed in spite of her misgivings, and went over to the large closet. The press of a small lever caused the doors to retract, and she examined the row of dresses. There were many in the fashionable warm tones; reds, yellows, russets, rusts, but here and there a cool color peeper out. Suka pulled out a dove-gray dress, and held it against herself. “I like this one, Gehne, do you think it will be alright for dinner?”
Gehne squinted slightly. “Let me see it over here, the light is better.” The young woman move dot the center of the suite, and twirled, holding the dress to her shoulders. “There, does that give you a better idea fo it?”
“Well, it’s not the normal color that a girl of your age would be wearing, but I will admit, it does a great justice to your eyes and complexion. Yes, I think it will be fine. You’ll catch the eye of everyone in the room, I’m sure.” She set down her book, and stood. “And if you’re going to get there in time, I’d best help you get changed.”
“Oh, come now, Gehne, I can dress myself as well as anyone.” Suka pulled away, and walked towards her own room.”
The nurse followed her obstinately. “That may be true enough, but I can dress you more quickly than you can dress yourself. You’ve only an hour or so, and you had best take a bath as well.”
Suka opened her mouth to protest, but thought better of it. “Very well, then. If you will hand me a clean shift, I will call you when I am ready to put the dress on.”
Gehne already had the item in her hand, and passed it to Suka who closed the bathing room door, and turned on the faucet. As the steam swirled around her, making her bangs lay flat on her forehead, she carefully removed the metal spheres that held her hair in place, setting them carefully on a small shelf. She reached a hand up behind her, feeling for the small latch in the metal corset. She flipped the latch over, and gasped as the metal bonds loosened, sliding a few inches out from tnhe central support. She pulled the contraption off, and took a deep breath before removing her dress and worn shift and slipping into the water.
A half hour later, she stood in the center of the suite still steaming slightly in a clean shift.
“Raise your arms, dear, “ Gehne mumbled, tossing the dress over Suka’s head. She gave it a practiced pull downwards, and the dress slid into place, fitting to the younger woman’s curves. Picking up the truncated corset from where it sat on the floor, the nurse slipped it around Suka’s torso. “Hold that in place, dear, yes, that’s good.” She moved around Suka, checking that the fabric was laying flat and not folding oddly anywhere. When she was satisfied, she flipped the latch on the back of the corset, and heard the young woman’s breath catch as the bands of metal slid inwards, pulling her ribs and torso into the proper shape.
“There we are! Now, just to do your hair and face, and you will be ready.” Suka took a seat on a stool at Gehne’s feet as the woman combed her hair with a bone comb until it shone and lay flat against her skull. Suka could feel Gehne’s fingers flying as she braided the dark hair, and wound it in coils against her skull, pinning it with long silver skewers.
“Now, turn and face me, and I will make sure that they all notice your complexion.” Gehne dusted the smooth young face with powder, and smoothed the faintest hint of blush into the cheeks. “There, now you will glow like Lotha herself, and all the other young ladies in the room will go green with envy when the men take no notice of them.”
Suka stood carefully, making sure not to tread on the hem of her dress. “Really, Gehne, you’d think I had nothing more on my mind apart from a good marriage! I will have you know that I also think often of dancing!” The nurse laughed, and touched a button by the door. A few moments, a knock came on the door, and Gehne opened it.
A young man stood there, dressed plainly but impeccably. “Yes madame, is the lady ready to go to the dining hall?” Gehne nodded sedately, and stood back as Suka came to the door. She noted with a great deal of pleasure how a faint flush came ot the young man’s face as he saw the beauty of her charge, and gave her his arm to escort her.
The two made their way down the grand stairway and made their way to a table. Several other young women sat there, and an equal number of young men sat at an adjacent table. Suka’s escort held her chair for her as she sat at the table, then bowed and took his leave.
“Suka, I adore your dress,” one of the girls said breathlessly. “Where did you buy it?”
“My mother got it for me, so I am not sure, but I believe she got it from one of the traders who came through. He said it had come from a craftsman in one of the other cities.” Suka spoke in quiet measured tones as she perused the menu that lay on the table. “I believe that I will have the sautéed eel, I hear that the chef aboard is a master of cooking them.”
Another young woman approached the table on the arm of an escort, and sat quietly. Suka looked up and smiled. “Well, Kedi, it is good to see you! I had heard that you would not be able to come on this little trip!”
The other girl smiled; her skin was as pale as Suka’s, but her hair was the color of wheat, and her eyes were a bright blue. Her grandfather, brought over to Kedon as an Ersan servant had begun a small business, and grown it into a large industry; when he died, his son inherited a fortune, and made his way into the higher levels of society. Many looked down on the family, scoffing at the notion of an Ersan nobleman, but Suka had always gotten along well with Kedi; she was a gentle soul, and Suka had found that she had a will of iron when necessary.
“Yes, I was not feeling well earlier in the week, and the doctor thought that I might not be well enough to spend extended time at sea. But I improved quite a bit, and so was able to come. The doctor now claims that the sra air will be just what I need to recover completely; I think sometimes that he does not know hwat ghe is talking about, but that he simply likes to listen to himself speak.”
A ripple of laughter went around the table, and one of the young men glanced over at the young ladies. Several of the girls blushed, and looked down at their menus, Kedi among them.
The musicians took their place at the front of the room, and began to play quietly; the songs were simple and easy to listen to, and the mood in the room was light and easy. While the meals were being served and eaten, the conversation ranged from the weather to the voyage to the latest fashions in Perzelsis, and back to the weather again.
“I hope it rains soon,” Kedi said as she calmly buttered a slice of bread. “The farmers need it, and the prices of food will soon go up if the crops suffer.”
“I hope not! I am giving a party in two months, and I don’t want to spend too much for the food,” one of the other girls laughed.
“Yes, you’ll be needing a new pair of shoes, and with the way you buy them, that will consume most of the money set aside for the party!” came a retort from the other side of the table, and the girls all smiled. Suka let her mind wander, chatting away without paying too much attention to anything she was saying. Her eyes continually drifted to the glass dome above the,. The glass was already beginning to glow golden with the evening light, and soon it would be dark. She had yet ot be able to persuade Gehne to allow her to come down into the dining room when the moons were visible through the dome
When the dinner had ended, the group slowly dispersed. Many of the young ladies stayed for dancing, but Suka had no interest in dancing that night. As she traversed the staircase, she saw her escort waiting for her in the hallway. "Good evening, my lady. Allow me to escort you back to your rooms."
Suka shook her head, and said, "No, I am not going back to my room. Please take me to one of the parlors, preferably an empty one."
"But miss, it would been improper for you to be seen sitting alone in the parlor. Perhaps we can find one with some of the other young ladies..."
"No, please, just take me to a parlor. I do not care if anyone sees me sitting alone, provided that they do not try to rememdy the situation. Here, this one will do fine. I can take myself to my room when I decide to retire. Thank you."
"Very well, madame, but I wish you would reconsider. Let me get the lights for you." He moved toward the switch on the wall, but Suka shooed him away.
"No, I like the dark, and the moon will give more than enough light. I just want to look up at the stars for a little while, then I promise you, I will go to my quarters like a proper lady."
The escort left her reluctantly, and she sat in one of the chairs that lay below the skylight. The chairs were wooden, and made in flowing graceful lines; the moonlit shone off the metal, making even the bright color look cold.
She settled into the chair, letting the train of her dress hang odwn onto the floor. Her mother did not approve of such lounging chairs, claiming that they ruined her posture, but Suka relished the chance to lie back without worrying about her straight her shoulders were.
She let her eyes drift up to the skylight, the metal bars sihouetted against the starlit heavens. The edge of Lotha was just coming into view, and a few clouds drifted lazily between the sea and the stars. A lone airship made its way across the sky, visible only where its large gas-filled bulk blocked out the light of the stars. She watched the ungainly vessel float on the wind until it passed out of sight, then turned her eyes to the waves. The ocean looked black, much darker than the sky. Suka marveled that something so blue and beautiful by day could be look so threatening at night.
She heard a quiet sound behind her, and turned around. A man stood in the doorway, leaning casually against the doorframe. He wore blue trousers that presumably had been nicely pressed earlier in the evneing, though they had now lost most of their crispness, and a white shirt with no waistcoat. On a closer inspection, she noticed that his waistcoat was gripped in his hand, and looked a bit worse for wear--she could see that a few of the metal rods were beginning to detach from the stiff fabric. He held a cigarette, and slowly exhaled a stream of smoke into the dark room.
"Oh, I beg your pardon, lady, I did not know this room was occupied, since the lights were off." He hasitly extinguished his cigarette, and slipped on the waistcoat, though he neglected to button it.
Suka stood up gracefully. "Please, don't let me disturb you. I was just sitting here to watch the stars. I suppose I really shouldn't be sitting here by myself in the dark. I was just about to walk back to my room; feel free to sit down."
He bowed rather awkwardly, and stepped back from the door. "I didn't mean that you should leave. I will be happy to find another parlour, I'm sure there must be one available at this time of night. Most people are either in their rooms, or still dancing in the hall. I must confess, neither one held much attraction for me tonight. Like you, I enjoy watchking the stars go by. But please, sit back down, I will find another spot to sit." He turned to go, but Suka slipped through the doorway, and spoke quietly. "no, I really am leaving. My companion will become nervous if I do not come back soon, and she will probably faint when I come bakc without my escort as it is."
The man laughed, and held out an arm. "Well, if you came back with an escort, even if he's not the same one you left with, perhaps it will not be noticed!"
As they walked along the empty corridor, chatting pleasantly, Suka tried to place his accent. It did not sound like anything she knew on Kedon, nor did he have the tones of the Astaldak. He looked something like the priest, but his manner seemed much more relaxed.
They arrived at the door of her stateroom, and she turned to face the intriguing stranger. "Thank you, sir, for escorting me! I hope we may meet again during the trip! I am Suka Loedi, daughter of Mukti Loedi." She bowed gracefully, and he returned the gesture.
“It is a very great honor to meet you, Suka Loedi. I am Mariok Resul, captain of the fine ship Julani. I would consider it a great privilege to meet you again during the voyage.” He smiled, and as she entered her quarters, continued down the hallway.
“Suka! Where have you been? I thought you would be coming back soon, did you stay out dancing with the other girls?” Gehne stood, setting aside her book as her charge entered the suite. Suka laughed, and shook her head. “No, I simply stopped in a parlour to look at the moons and stars. I know, it’s not proper to sit out by myself, but I just needed some quiet after the din of the great hall. You know how it plays on my nerves. The parlor was nice and quiet, and the sky was beautiful.”
Gehne snorted indelicately, and accompanied Suka to her dressing room. “Stand still, let’s get you out of this corset, before it wrinkles your dress more.” Her practiced fingers snapped the latch open, and the metal bands slipped wide.
Suka took a deep breath, and stretched, feeling the familiar ache of her ribs where the metal had bound them tightly.
“And I suppose you walked all the way back by yourself, too? No, Suka, let me speak a moment. You know that I care less for the rules of society than your mother does, but there is still a measure of propriety to assume. Young ladies of good families simply cannot go clambering all over a liner at night by themselves! It doesn’t matter if anyone saw you or not, but you’ve got to learn that there is a time and place for everything.”
“That’s not what I was going to say, Gehne. I didn’t come back alone; I met a fine gentleman, and he was kind enough to escort me home.” She lifted her arms over her head as the nurse pulled the grey dress off over her head. She felt light and free in the simple unbleached shift; the dress was beautiful, but rather heavy, and the corset added another ten pounds, along with its constriction.
She sat on a low stool at her nurse’s feet, and Gehne combed her hair. Suka closed her eyes and let her spine relax; the comb moved smoothly through her hair, the teeth gently raking across her scalp. After all the tangles were smoothed out, Gehne picked up a thick-brisled comb and ran it over Suka’s hair, until it shone like the moonlit waves. “There. Now let’s just put this up in a braid, and you need to go to bed. It’s been a long day, and you need your sleep.”
As she settled into the soft cushions of the bed, Suka’s mind drifted back to the quiet parlor. The moon had been so beautiful as it shone into the room, falling pale upon the carpet and chairs. The stars…she sighed as she drifted into sleep…the stars seemed so friendly…
The stars wheeled above in the huge dome of the sky. Nothing obstructed the view, and the horizon was empty all around. She could feel herself drifting, bobbing gently up and down upon the waves. She could feel a slight warmth on the skin of her ankle, and looked over to see a young woman with pale skin and ginger hair, asleep in the arms of a dark young man; her hand fell upon Suka’s ankle. The surge of emotion she felt while seeing the other woman surprised her, and she turned away.
The waves turned bright and froze in place, becoming sand dunes under a blazing noon sun. Suka caught a glimpse of green eyes in a pale face, and shuddered. She turned to run, but the other young woman was there again, smiling at her. She felt caught between the two, pulled in both directions at once.
“I want you,” whispered the man with the green eyes. “I want everything you are. Just give yourself to me, and you’ll never have to die again.”
“I want you,” said the ginger-haired woman. “I want you to learn to give yourself up, to give yourself away.”
“She will let you die,” came the words from the green eyes.
“You will die, yes, but you will move beyond death. He would keep you in death forever.”
Suka was confused, mind whirling. She turned her back on both, and saw a small child standing ankle-deep in the eddying sand. She had hair the color of burnished gold, and her eyes were wide and blue; the face was composed, but the eyes belied a deep grief.
“What is it that you want me to do?” asked Suka. The child did not respond, but simply held out her hands. Suka reached out to pick up the child, longing to comfort her; the sand whirled between them, and Suka sank down into the ground, falling through the void, sand around her. Then the sand began to shine, each grain becoming a star in the sky as Suka soared through galaxies.
Suka woke reluctantly, trying to hold onto the sensation of flying for as long as possible. She reached out a hand to touch one of the sparkling points of light, but her fingers met only the smooth cool cloth of her bedsheets.