She passed the afternoon away by writing, starting with the alphabet to see if she’d forgotten any, and then any words she could remember, in a list, down the side of a fresh piece of parchment. She wrote her own name, began to write Cederic's and hesitated. She remembered the face of the King's Hand, the one who heard everything.
Letha shuddered, drew her knees up and rested her head on them. She knew now, what she had done to Cederic. She didn't know how she could face him again, knowing it.
Rosalind got such a scolding that she forget to fetch Letha for dinner, but brought up some cold chicken and white bread as an apology, much later, which pleased Letha more. They shared the feast on the bed, spread out on a linen napkin.
The next morning Letha dressed in her own peasant clothing. She bound her hair back in a braid and tied it with string.
“You're never going to wear that!” gasped Rosalind, when she saw Letha. “Why, when you’ve much better things?”
“I…I don’t like that other dress.” Then Letha drew herself up. “These are mine, my own clothes. They suit me.”
“If you say so..."
“Go out the door for a moment,” said Letha. “I must bring out the gown.”
Rosalind drew close to Letha at the open door. “Are you going to do magic?”
Letha was sorely tempted. “I can’t tell you,” she replied, miserably. “I just can’t, I can’t risk saying it out loud.”
“Right,” breathed Rosalind, drawing away, her face excited. "I'll wait here."
“Please be a gown,” begged Letha quietly, after the door had closed behind Rosalind. She brought the iron ring down with a sharp crack and light poured into the room. Letha gathered up the light in her arms; it weighed no more than a puff of thistledown.
When she shook it out, it became a gown with so many layers that parts of it were strewn across every corner of the room and the light washed over the ceiling as though reflected from water.
Letha wanted it, as she looked at it. She wanted it badly. She hated the thought of giving up the last of her beautiful, otherworldly things that the gods had given to her. After this she would have no more leverage.
"I must be brave,” Letha told herself. “I must ask to see Cederic today. If I see him, surely he’ll remember himself.”
She remembered what Alona had told her. Letha scrambled through the bundle. Tangled with the silky, dry snake skin was the sprig of rosemary. Letha looked at it and felt the overwhelming, sickening sensation of failure and grief that she had felt the morning she had picked it.
She remade the bundle for the last time, and fastened it to her back with the colored cord. She gathered up the dress and took the rosemary in her left hand, hidden in her palm.
“All right, I’m ready,” she said to Rosalind, when she came out. “We might not see each other after this, but I wanted to thank you for being so kind to me.”
“Why? Are you going away? You can’t, the Princess said you must stay here.”
“Well, just in case,” said Letha. “I just wanted to say goodbye.
“You are a strange one,” said Rosalind and then smiled.
They went directly to the Princess’s room as before. This morning she was eating little triangles of toast with cream and strawberries. Ladies in waiting were gathered around the table in a colorful group.
“How dare you keep me waiting all morning?"Annora cried. "Show me the gown at once.”
“Sorry your highness,” murmured Letha. She lifted the dress up and shook it a little, to let it fall open.
There was a little, stunned silence.
“Bring that here,” said the Princess, her voice shaking. She took the dress in her hands, smoothed the fabric, lifted a layer.
“What do you want in return for this?” Annora whispered, unable to take her eyes off the gown.
The other young ladies had crept forward, reaching out to try and touch it, but the Princess, seeing this, snatched it away.
“Don’t you dare!” she cried. “Don’t you dare put a single finger on my gown. I won’t have it soiled!” The light from the gown lit her face from beneath, making her appear ghostly. “Well?” she asked, turning to Letha. “Speak up, what do you want for this? I’ll give you anything, I must have it."
“I...” breathed Letha. “I was hoping... to meet the man you'll wear it for.”
The Princess gave a pretty little laugh of disbelief. Beside her, Letha heard Rosalind gasp.
“That is a bold request,” said the Princess, looking Letha up and down. Then she sighed. “But if you must ask that, I will grant it, for this dress is mine and no one else’s. And you, seamstress, will live here in the castle forever, and sew for me.”
Letha curtsied, trying to hide the horror she felt at that idea.
The Princess reluctantly surrendered the dress to waiting maidservant. She glared at the older woman as she did.
“Take this away and if any harm comes of it, I’ll have it extracted from your own body in lashes,” she warned. “Come now, Mistress Needle, and I’ll give you your reward.”
The Princess led the way through lushly appointed rooms, down brilliant corridors and stairs. This part of the castle was golden with light. Massive windows were everywhere; they looked out over the roofs of the city and the slow moving river below.
Letha’s heart was beating so loud she was afraid the Princess would hear it, turn, and ask her why. She held the sprig of rosemary tightly in one hand. She kept her eyes on the trailing hem of the Princess’s gown as she walked, to keep her head from spinning. It was creamy white and heavily embroidered with sweeps of gold thread.
Finally the hem stopped moving and so did Letha. They stood before a large set of carved wooden doors, with two men in livery standing to either side.
“Her Royal Highness, the Princess Annora,” called one of the men, who stepped to the doors and flung them wide.
“Darling,” the Princess called lightly, as she stepped through them. “Someone to see you.”
The doors closed behind Letha. She saw a great, gilded room, high arched windows, furniture carved, painted, gilded and mirrors set high in the wall. She saw pale blue and pink, gold and white. And she saw Cederic as he rose from his chair.
Letha had not realized what an arresting face he had. There was great intelligence and force in it. There were fine lines at the corners of his eyes and mouth; he looked older. His hair was longer than she had ever known it, it fell loose around his ears and collar.
He wore an outlandish outfit, hose of dark red, slippers of velvet, and a doublet of dark red with great, puffed sleeves at the shoulders and gathered tightly around his wrists. Gathered white cuffs half hid his hands.
“Good morning, my love,” he said, moving to the Princess to take her arm. His voice was without nuance and it was the lack of expression and not the words, that most troubled Letha.
“You must meet someone,” said the Princess, gaily, laughing up into his face. “This is the most amazing seamstress, the one that made my wedding gown."
Cederic looked at Letha and it stuck her like a lance. He looked, but he didn’t see her.
Letha felt pity, horror and longing all at once. She forgot where she was and who was with them; she went running swiftly across the marble floor to him. She stood close to him, looking up at his face.
“Cederic, wake up," she said urgently. She opened her hand and the scent of rosemary rose up into the air between them. "Look what I brought. I'll give it back you. Come back."
Just beside Letha, the Princess pushed free of Cederic’s arm, so outraged for a moment that she couldn’t find breath to speak.
Cederic’s face twisted as if in pain. He cried out and brought his hands up to his face.
“How dare you!” began the Princess. “How dare…”
Her voice was cut off. She stood frozen all of a piece, even the feathers that used to bob above her head. She stood there, mouth still open, her face red, distorted in a moment of passion.
“Get this off me!” Cederic said, his voice thick with disgust.
Letha turned back to him with joy.
He was ripping at the doublet. Letha took hold of one side of it, pulled it off of one of his shoulders. As soon as the last of the clothing hit the polished marble, Cederic was dressed as he had always been, in his brigandine and trousers of thick wool under his boots.
“Letha!” he cried, panting, his eyes frantic. “Letha, why…?”
He broke off, caught his breath. As he looked at her, his eyes changed, the pupils widened, as his memory came pouring back in like water. He shook his head then, as if to free himself of his thoughts.
“We have no time now. If only…”
“I have this,” said Letha, breathless. She fumbled with the cord and pulled her bundle free. She handed it to him.
“You found these?” he asked, looking up at her in wonder. He lifted his hand.
Letha found herself staring at his boots, on all fours, on the cold marble. She could smell everything marvelously; she was surrounded by a world of scents. She knew she needed to run; she couldn’t be out in the open, it was very dangerous. Just as she started to look around for a hole to dart into, she was caught up by Cederic’s hand.
Cederic leaped up onto the wide windowsill, lifted his arms and fell forward, and he was gone. A gyrfalcon rose up into the air, the tail of a mouse dangling out between his talons. The falcon swept hard up, the span of his wings fully six feet, straining against the air to gain height.
He made for the great winds that blew steady at the top of the sky. He caught them and was born away, just above and sometimes into the heavy rain clouds that the wind also carried. Mist beaded on his feathers when he dipped down into the soft gray billows.
Behind him, great, rolling clouds were massing like the curling waves of the sea. Dark swirls of cloud crested out, billowing faster each moment, spreading out from the King’s City.
The dark clouds dyed the land below charcoal blue and gray green, reaching like fingers across the sky. The wind failed the falcon and he faltered. The dark clouds overtook him, there was a great crack and rumble of thunder and a spray of hard rain fell across his speckled, outstretched wings.
Then the wind steadied, the falcon strained forward and the wind pushed him out from under the dark edges of the rolling cloud, into lighter gray skies of high, harmless cirrus clouds. Below the gyrfalcon the fields rolled and tilted, the dark clouds came on, curling and cresting just behind him.
Farmers looked up from their winter wheat in wonder at the speed of the storm that flew past, covering their ears at the boom and crack of thunder. Thin, icy sleet followed, pelting the peasants and nobles alike who happened to be caught out in it.
The falcon flew all day long, racing the wind, flying much farther and faster than any mere hawk could have. But no matter how much ground Cederic covered, or how swiftly, the storm always came after.
As the day drew to an end, the sun came out for a moment from under the clouds. It sent long rays of gold light racing out across the tops of the hills. A house rose up from behind an approaching hill.
It was set with many windows, all of which caught the last light of the sun. The falcon shifted his weight, angled his wings, and began to drop swiftly out of the sky. The sun turned his wings to gold as he flew down through its rays.
Then the ground was rushing up, filling his vision. The hawk drew back, curved his wide wings and suddenly Cederic was stepping out of the air and unto the grass, a little brown mouse cradled in his out flung hand.
Kneeling, he tipped the mouse onto the ground, where it sniffed the air. He stood and Letha stood as well, flung out her arms to catch her balance, her head spinning. He took hold of her arm to steady her, and then pulled the bewildered girl with him into the house.
It was a house unlike anything Letha had ever seen. Her cottage had been wattle and daub; Cederic’s tower and the King’s castle were of cold stone. But this house was all of wood and smooth plaster and felt warm and inviting.
They stood in the wide, wood paneled hallway that ran all the way back and was lit by a tall window at the end. The hall opened up on either side of them into large, comfortable rooms. Directly ahead of them was a polished wooden staircase curving up to the second floor.
“Hi there, Peter! Wake up, you slouch!” shouted Cederic.
“Cederic!” bellowed a jolly voice in return.
A man appeared down the hall from them. He had a red face and a good girth. Above his bewhiskered face was a bald plate with just a few strands of gingery hair combed over. He held a chicken leg in one hand, there was a napkin tucked into his low collar.
“Cederic, you wretch, I see you came in time for dinner, as always.”
He saw Letha, then and his face changed, but before he could speak a great gust of wind slammed into the house. It took the open door behind them and slammed it shut with a bang that shook the glass.
“He’s right on my tail,” admitted Cederic. “And he’s thrown down the wind.”
“Well, what else is new?” asked Peter, walking swiftly up to them in a rolling gait. “If only, my dear boy, you had managed once to kill him.”
“Thank you,” said Cederic dryly. “I’ll have to remember that the next time I have the chance.”
“What hostage this?” asked Peter, kindly, looking at Letha.
“This is Letha, my wife.” asked Cederic tersely.
“My dear boy,” said Peter, tossing the chicken bone into a nearby vase, and wiping his hands on his vest. “You might have a warned a man.” He held out a hand to Letha, eyes warm and shy.
“We have no time,” Cederic said, impatiently.
“Right, right,” said Peter, patting Letha’s hand vaguely. “Later then. Go on upstairs and to your right, second door to your left. Make yourself at home.”
“Go up,” ordered Cederic, curt, when Letha hesitated.
Letha went up the stairs slowly, turning to watch Cederic as he left the house. She sighed and made the rest of her way up. Following Peter’s instructions, she found a bedroom with a slanted ceiling and two dormer windows.
Letha had never seen a room so plush or inviting, but those minutes spent in that room, waiting for Cederic to return, were some of the longest and worst she had ever known.