He awoke in an unfamiliar place, and for a brief moment, the confusion spared him the depression.
Memory came back, though, and Rasha groaned aloud, pressing the heels of his hands into his eyes. This was the single most luxurious bed in which he had ever slept, but right now it felt like a trap. He knew the trap was in his own head, knew it felt the same waking up on a hammock in his father’s schooner or his bunk back at the Guild. Something felt symbolic, though, in the way he seemed to sink into the plus, silk-sheeted mattress.
He’d been left behind. All the uselessness, all the helplessness he always felt, everything he forced himself to push down and proceed despite… Now it had validation. He knew quite well that his friends had been perfectly correct, was able to understand cognitively that they were concerned for his health, not trying to push him away or question his value. None of that, of course, made the slightest difference to the hateful little voice which immediately set about whispering that they had never wanted him around, now that he wasn’t too exhausted to hear it.
Somehow, without even deciding he was going to, he jerked into motion, thrashing against the satin sheets and downy comforter, extricating himself from the bed. Get up, get moving, get the blood flowing. It was a start.
The opulence of Glory’s best guest room wasn’t only in its gilded furniture and fine bedclothes; she also had the best and latest household enchantments. A discreet arcane range set under the bay windows kept the room pleasingly warm, the window glass itself was charmed to prevent ice from adhering or even condensation from obscuring the view. Most noticeably, the fairy lamps automatically ignited when they detected him moving away from the bed, the light level rising smoothly rather than simply flicking on. It was still afternoon, to judge by the light, and snow was now falling heavily outside. The lamps changed the character of the light in the room more than its level, bringing it up from dimness.
Rasha threw his shirt back on and struggled into his trousers, leaving his shoes sitting by the foot of the bed. With that done, he paused in the middle of the floor, feeling helpless and completely out of place. He didn’t belong here, surrounded by so much obvious wealth.
That started up a very dangerous line of thinking again, and with a soft grunt of self-recrimination, he resumed moving. This time toward the door.
The hall outside the room was totally silent, as he discovered upon poking his head out.
“H-hello?” he whispered, immediately hating himself for the hesitation in his voice. Moved by an impulse he knew wasn’t rational, Rasha retreated very carefully back into the room, pulling the door shut as gently and silently as he could. It just felt wrong to disturb the stillness of the opulent townhouse.
He rubbed his hands on his trousers, peering about helplessly. There was another door leading to the attached bathroom; that had already been pointed out to him. Well, there was nothing else here he particularly knew what to do with, so in he went.
Minutes later, feeling a bit fresher for having thoroughly washed his hands and face, and even dampened down his bed-tousled hair to straighten it, he wandered back out into the bedroom. The soap smelled of roses, and now so did he. He liked it far more than he’d ever have admitted.
There was another door in the room. Rasha, after hesitating a moment and glancing at the window, crept over to it. The knob was smooth-polished crystal, cut in the shape of a heart. It appeared to be quartz, pink in its center and fading to transparency toward the edges. Clearly a valuable stone, the kind of thing that would have been a display piece for any family he knew back home, assuming they didn’t just pawn it. Here, it was a doorknob.
He turned it, pulled the door very hesitantly open, and poked his head through.
His room was clearly a guest room; exquisitely, expensively decorated, but somewhat neutrally for all that. This one, in addition to being twice the size, was someone’s home. It was clean and fairly neat, but there were touches of inhabited disarray: expensive cosmetics scattered on the vanity, a fur-trimmed coat hanging by the door, silken scarves draped over the foot of the bed where several had apparently been chosen among and the rest discarded. There were elements which suggested that the owner of this place took personal comfort in a cheaper style of décor than her house reflected overall, especially in the slightly battered wooden chairs flanking the fireplace, a whole collection of oil paintings done in a very simple style of rustic landscapes, and a rug beside the bed which appeared to be simply a tanned deer hide. In pride of place over the mantle hung a glass display case containing a selection of knives, all of them clearly weapons rather than tools, and most visibly well-used.
Of course. He knew Glory’s business, or at least the general style of it as Jasmine had described it. Suddenly, having the best guest bedroom open directly onto her own made perfect sense.
Obviously, the correct thing to do was to back up, close the door, and…
What? Sit in his room? Pace? Sleep more? Go outside, find Glory and Layla, make painfully awkward small talk with a (he had to admit) rather shrewish young noblewoman and a woman who might as well be noble?
Rasha took a step forward, then another, finding himself in her bedroom before really deciding to go. It wasn’t that he had any particular plans, here, just the feeling that his already-brittle self-worth would crack permanently if he retreated in fear from one more harmless silence.
He peered cautiously around, taking in the sight of the furnishings, trying to get what he could of a sense of who she was. The room bore evidence of a contrast, paying its respects both to her wealth and sophisticated tastes, and simpler origins which she still honored. It was a small thing, but somehow it made him like her more.
Wandering close to the vanity table, he gathered the impression that she spent a great deal of time here; at any rate, it was the most cluttered part of the room. Cosmetics were strewn across the wood table under the huge mirror, which had tiny fairy lights lining its rim. Next to the vanity was an enormous wardrobe, standing open and with a brocaded robe of blue satin hanging carelessly on one of its doors.
Rasha crept closer, reaching out hesitantly to feel the fabric between thumb and forefinger. It was… Beautiful. To touch, and to look at.
A moment later he had to step forward awkwardly to catch it, as the robe slid freely from the door’s corner. It had been instinct; it wasn’t as if it would be harmed by hitting the floor. Still, he’d have felt guilty for dropping it, even more than he now did for holding it. Well, it would be the work of seconds to put it back…
His eyes caught his reflection in the vanity’s mirror. Thanks to the lights, he could see himself even more clearly than in the bathroom mirror in the guest room.
Rasha had never been pleased to see his reflection, and carefully did not dwell on why. He had grown used to not dwelling on things; dwelling led to lying in bed, loathing himself and the universe, until it felt physically impossible to move. Now, moved by some instinct he didn’t understand, he slowly lifted the robe to his chin, covering his scrawny frame and threadbare shirt.
It really was a lovely garment, royal blue and embroidered with spiraling patterns in azure which he only discerned after a closer inspection were vines and leaves. Staring at his reflection behind the robe, he took another step toward the vanity. The garment was unmistakably feminine. There’d have been hell to pay back home for messing about with something like this, as he knew from firsthand experience; his sisters had no sense of humor when it came to him touching their things, and his father even less so. They were just so nice. Women were allowed to have soft things, pleasant things, pretty things…
He had absolutely no business being here at all, much less doing this. But…when else would he ever see…?
Rasha lowered his eyes, unable to meet his own gaze in the mirror, but in one defiant motion, threw the robe around his shoulders. It fit rather well; he had always been diminutive and fine-boned. Glory was actually slightly taller, and her shoulders probably about the same size as his. It would hang loose in the bust, of course, or so he assumed. He very carefully slipped his arms into the sleeves, mindful of the expensive fabric and determined not to do it the slightest damage. Yes, the robe was clearly tailored, meant for a woman’s shape; it didn’t hang on him right. Somehow, that brought a pang of disappointment. Still… It was such a pretty thing. He gazed hungrily at the image of himself in the mirror, keeping his focus below the chin and ignoring his own familiar face as much as possible.
“It really isn’t your color.”
Rasha leaped two feet straight up, letting out a squeal, and whirled to stagger backward, his shoulder painfully impacting the edge of the wardrobe’s open door.
Glory smoothly pushed shut the bedroom door which she had opened without a sound, smiling at him and gliding forward. He desperately wished he could spontaneously die.
“I-I-I’m so sorry,” he babbled, cringing and backing away. “I was just, it was, I’m sorry. I had no right—”
“Rasha.” Her tone was firm, but not angry; in fact, he only just then processed the fact that her expression was kind and open, not annoyed in the least. “I don’t know how much time you’ve spent with Lore, but he has a saying that’s always resonated with me: ‘An unlocked door is as good as an invitation.’ Classic thief’s philosophy. Trust me, Rasha, any place in this house where I don’t want you is quite beyond your power to enter. Consider yourself welcome everywhere else.”
“I’m sorry,” he whispered, lowering his gaze from hers in mortification. The robe seemed to itch, to hang as heavily on him as a yoke, but he felt too terrified to move enough to take it off. “It was just… It started to fall so I caught it, and then…”
“I realize blue is on the Punaji flag,” she mused, placing both hands on his shoulders, “but…mm, it really isn’t your color, is it? Warm tones, I think. Wait just a moment.”
She released him and stepped past, reaching into the wardrobe, and pulled out another silk robe, this one a deep crimson and trimmed in golden thread. Glory held it up below his chin, then made a satisfied little sound in her throat. “Ah! Yes, I think that works much better. Would you like to try this one?”
Rasha swallowed heavily. After a moment, he forced himself to meet her gaze, painful as it was. “I’m very sorry for intruding, Glory. You have every right to make fun of me and worse. I would…very much appreciate it if you’d punish me differently, though.”
Slowly, the smile leaked away from her face. “Oh, Rasha,” she said quietly, shaking her head. “You have it all wrong…” She studied his face for a long moment, then lowered the red robe and asked suddenly. “Do you trust me?”
He blinked. “I… Well… You’ve been more than kind…”
“People are kind for all sorts of reasons, many quite selfish.” Glory tilted her head slightly, still studying him. There was something indefinable in her expression which did not make him feel judged or condemned. That was…amazing. He nearly always felt judged and condemned. “Let’s not dwell upon reasons. Reach for your instincts. Can you trust me enough to take a risk, and be certain that I will not let you come to harm?”
He stared at her in bemusement.
“Don’t think,” she said softly. “Just answer. What does instinct tell you?”
“Yes,” he said, somewhat to his own surprise.
Glory nodded. “I want to try something, Rasha. You may find this…difficult. Probably embarrassing at the very least. I will swear to you up front, however, that I will never, under any circumstances, breathe a word of this to anyone unless you specifically wish it. If it turns out I am wrong, and you don’t like this, then we need never speak of it ourselves, either. It can be as if it never happened. But if I’m right… I think this will do you a world of good.”
He gazed suspiciously at her, finding nothing but kindness in her expression. “What…do you mean?”
Glory smiled. “Do you trust me?”
Very slowly, he nodded.
“All right,” she said, nodding back. “Then I’ll ask you to bear with me; this will take a fair amount of patience on your part. And as I said, if this ends up making you unhappy, we’ll just undo it and forget the entire thing. Now, let’s get that off you.”
Shamefaced, her shimmied out of the blue robe, which she then carelessly tossed in the direction of her bed. Glory then directed him to sit on the stool in front of her vanity, swiveling it so that his back was to the mirror. She had to step around him to select a brush and a small pad of powder from the mess on the table, then knelt before him and began dabbing gently at his face.
“What’s all this?” he asked suspiciously.
“Patience,” she chided with a gentle smile. “Don’t worry, I am very well-practiced at this. It won’t take long at all.”
“What are you turning me into?”
She had already finished applying the soft brush across his cheekbones, and now reached for some kind of pencil. “I can’t turn you into anything, Rasha. And if my instincts are wrong, I’m wasting your time and mine, here. But I don’t think they are; I think I’m going to show you something you need to see. Now, do be still; you’ll want to blink. Try not to.”
That last admonition was very much necessary, as she brought the pencil directly to his eye.
Glory was, true to her word, fast and efficient; she swiftly picked and used her various, mysterious implements, applying pencils and brushes and dabs of paint with her fingertip over his eyelids and lips, stroking at his eyelashes with some tiny bristled apparatus and then swiftly smudging something from a soft pad along his cheeks.
Then she went to work on his hair with a brush and small comb, and Rasha did his best to hold still. Her touch was gentle, but as little attention as he paid his hair ordinarily, it was distracting having his head tugged about.
The distraction was welcome. He had a sinking feeling in his gut about this whole thing, and several times nearly opened his mouth to back out.
But…he had said he trusted her. She’d promised to drop it if he wanted. He somehow hated the idea of disappointing her.
Glory pulled him to his feet and helped him into the scarlet robe with its glittering embroidery; up close, he realized it actually made the forms of dragons along the sleeves, collar and lapels. This garment was barely just a robe—it had shape, its collar rising stiffly to just below his chin and the lapels padded to the point he felt they were more of a physical presence on him than his own thin chest. Finally, with the robe tied into place to her satisfaction, she directed him to sit back down on the velvet-covered stool.
“All right,” she said seriously. “The next part…may be trickier. What I want you to do, Rasha, is to just be honest.”
“Okay,” he said uncertainly.
“That’s harder than you may realize,” she said, her dark eyes holding his own. “You strike me as someone who has been told a lot of nonsense, and had your own inner demons to deal with, besides. Those things can roil around in your head until you can’t hear the voice of your own spirit. When I show you what I’ve done, I want you to silence all that, ignore it, and tell me your truth. What you feel: you, not anyone’s expectations.”
“I… I’ll try.”
Glory smiled with a hint of mischief. “Have you learned the secret to a really good lie yet?”
“Um…what secret do you mean?”
She winked. “The trick is to believe it. That’s all acting is, Rasha; we’re practically Vidians at times. Become the mask. If you don’t feel you can be totally, dangerously honest with yourself, imagine you are someone who can. Imagine what that would feel like, and then…pretend.”
“Lie to find honesty,” he said slowly, then surprised himself by smiling back. “That might be the most Eserite idea I’ve ever heard.”
“It really is, isn’t it?” she said with a grin, then took a deep breath and nodded. “All right, Rasha. Remember—there is nobody here but us, and no one will ever learn of this. All that matters is your truth.”
With that, she took him by the shoulders and turned him around on the swiveling stool to face the mirror.
Rasha couldn’t help gasping. The bottom dropped out of the whole world, leaving him in exhilarating, terrifying free fall.
He knew the lines of his own face, had always been inexplicably dissatisfied with it, and knew how other boys had sneered at his small stature and fine bones. That face, though, was now a completely different one. And yet, the same… It was both. It was as if he was seeing it correctly for the first time.
Huge, limpid eyes stared back at him, with long, dark lashes and just the faintest lining of kohl to make them stand out dramatically against his bronze complexion. Skillful, barely perceptible touches of rouge and contouring had turned narrow cheeks into sweeping angles, framing a graceful little nose and delicately pointed chin. Lips a deep shade of crimson that looked downright natural against that coppery skin were carefully shaped, and made somehow even more fetching by the open shape of startlement in which they were now set. Rasha’s black hair was too short to have given Glory much to work with, but that made its current styling all the more amazing: fluffy bangs swept to one side, the whole mop brushed to a soft shine and with more body than it had ever had. It was rakish, tomboyish, even, and somehow even more feminine for that.
The robe, too… He could see, now, how its shaped lapels, the lines of its embroidery, suggested feminine contours, even argued for them, all without physically changing the shape underneath. It had been more cleverly designed than any ship he’d ever seen.
Rasha stared at the girl in the mirror, unable for the longest moment to breathe.
“There’s no one here but you,” Glory whispered, her fingers coiling on his shoulders. She leaned down till her face was next to that of the strange girl’s, warm eyes watching Rasha’s. “Nothing else matters. Now, Rasha… How do you feel?”
He had never appreciated, before, how feminine his soft voice sounded when it whispered. That fact now underscored the truth it spoke without waiting for his approval.
Glory’s fingers gently squeezed his thin shoulders, her face lighting with a soft smile of approval. “And how does it feel to be beautiful?”
How? That question was just too huge to answer. Perfect? Right? There was no word for finding what had been always missing and yet never missed. But before Rasha’s whirling thoughts could settle into a useful shape, the girl’s sensuous lips moved again, and that breathy voice sounded.
In the mirror, Glory’s eyes practically glowed with satisfaction. “I thought so.”
“But…” Rasha swallowed heavily. It was somehow dissonant, seeing that girl’s face shift in time with his own motions. She was…she was… And yet, he was still… “I don’t…what does this mean?”
“Oh, Rasha.” Glory knelt behind him, wrapping one arm around him and resting her chin on his shoulder. “I can’t answer that. Nobody can, but you. I think, though, you’ll be able to find your answers. If I’m not wrong, you’ve absorbed such a pile of nonsense about how things should be that it’s never occurred to you to look. Is that so?”
Rasha nodded. In the mirror, the young woman he was supposed to be nodded back. It felt like a knife in the heart, but bitterly joyous. If this torrent of emotion didn’t get itself organized soon, he was going to pass out…
“They’re always doing that,” Glory whispered bitterly, clinging to the boy in the chair and the girl in the mirror. “Always with their rules. This is this, that is that, you’re only allowed to be and think a certain few things… And why?” She bared her teeth in an expression that Rasha would have called a sneer on someone less elegant. “As long as huge swaths of normal, healthy, real life is considered wrong, then everyone is always guilty of something. And guilty people are so much easier to control. And if anyone won’t stand for their foot on our necks, well. That’s even better, it gives them an other to point at. A scapegoat. Someone to rally their mobs against, to keep them complacent. And that is why the world needs Eserites.”
“I’m not,” Rasha whispered tremulously, still gazing at the girl’s face, hungry to memorize every detail. “What you’re talking about… I can’t. When I couldn’t take it anymore, I just, I ran away.”
Glory squeezed again, tenderly. “You are wrong, Rasha. You ran, yes—but not away. You ran toward. You came to Tiraas, to the Guild, to the people who could teach you how to fight back.” She bared her perfect teeth again, eyes blazing in the mirror, and Rasha felt something deep in a core he’d never known he had come alive in response. A beast woke, stretched, flexed its claws, and purred a counterpoint to Glory’s voice. “Your whole life, they have tried to make you something they could use. And they didn’t. You left, you came here, you sought out the power you needed. They did not break you. And they will not. And that, Rasha, is why you’re one of us.”
In the mirror, the girl’s chin lifted; tears still glistened in her perfectly brushed lashes, but there was a storm in those lovely eyes, now. Iron in the set of her jaw.
“You have the spirit, beneath all the pain,” Glory whispered fiercely. “I know you see weakness in yourself, but that’s the voice of those who’d control you, not your voice. You’ll learn to silence it. The true voice inside you brought you here, and that proves that you, the real you, are clever enough and strong enough to find the help and the power you need. You have the fire that drives you to stand up and make them pay. How dare they? Who do they think they are?” Her grip was almost painful now, but that almost pain was a comfort and a strength; the girl in the mirror raised one slender hand to grasp Glory’s arm in turn. “You have it in you, if you want, to turn on those who would control you, and ram a lesson in humility straight down their throats. And then down the next bastard’s, and the next after that. If, Rasha, you decide that is the life you want. It’s your life; no one gets to decide for you. Anyone who dares will bleed for the temerity.”
Finally, for the first time ever, Rasha knew the truth, heard no crushing inner voice of despair, spoke without a second’s doubt.
“I will,” she vowed. “So help me, I will.”
Glory’s face shone with pride; she pressed her cheek to Rasha’s, and together they gazed at their reflections for long minutes of silence.
“I still have no idea what to do,” Rasha finally admitted, and felt a laugh bubbling up. She let it, not trying to understand.
Glory grinned right back. “Well…there’s time, and it’s a process. You’ve still your Guild training; that will teach you the technique you need to stand and fight back against the abusers and oppressors. And…as for more personal matters, Rasha, I’m afraid our cult isn’t the best suited to help guide you to such answers. There’s no harm in looking outside it, though. The Izarites and Avenists actually have a great deal of wisdom to offer about situations like this, and even the Sisterhood won’t hesitate to help, Eserite or no.” She squeezed Rasha’s shoulders again, giving her an affectionate jostle. “Don’t worry about that any more than you can help. There’s time, as I said, to get your thoughts in order and consider your next steps. For right now… I am still in need of an apprentice. Do you think you’re in need of a home?”
Finally, at long last, Rasha tore her gaze from the mirror to look directly at Glory. “Wh—me? But I thought you wanted someone like Jasmine…”
“The funny thing is, we don’t always know what we want,” Glory replied, smiling broadly. “Much less what we need. I’m glad to count Jasmine as a friend, and I’d have been glad to have her as a pupil. In the end, though, she doesn’t need me. You and I, though… I have a feeling that we have a great deal to offer each other.”
Suddenly there was a soft knock on the door, and it opened.
Rasha tensed up in a blind panic, only Glory’s grip keeping her grounded.
“Pardon me, madam,” said Smythe from the doorway, not entering—in fact, he kept himself fully out of sight behind the door. “Your other guests have returned, accompanied by Quintessa Valaine, Alan Vandro, and his Butler, in a carriage which appears to have been repeatedly rammed. I gather there have been further developments.”
“I see,” Glory said wryly. “Thank you, Smythe; please see that they are comfortable in the upper hall. I’ll be there directly.”
“Yes, madam,” Smythe acknowledged, then gently pulled the door shut.
Glory heaved a sigh and gently stroked Rasha’s hair once. “Ah, it never ends. Think on it, okay? You don’t need to answer right away, and in fact I’d rather you didn’t; this is the kind of thing that requires some deliberation. Just, please make certain it’s you doing the thinking, and not the bitter voice that tries to eat you from within. We’ll work on making that little bastard shut up. For now.” She stood, giving Rasha’s shoulders a last squeeze with her aristocratic fingers. “In my bathroom, in the pink jar to the left of the sink, is a cream that’ll remove makeup. Just wipe it on, then rinse it off with water. Be careful not to get any in your eyes; it stings something awful. If,” she added in a gentler tone, “that is what you decide to do. If not, well, you really do look amazing.” She bent forward to lightly kiss Rasha on the top of her head. “And all we have in this house are friends who’ll accept you for you, and strangers whose opinion doesn’t matter. Don’t do anything you feel unready for, but it’s never to early to start thinking about letting people see your true self. When you decide it’s time.”
With one last, gentle squeeze, she turned and glided to the door, then slipped out.
Rasha remained there, hungrily gazing at her new face. But not for long. As desperately needed as this was…there was work to do. Friends in need. She drew in a steadying breath, then rose and turned toward the bathroom.
There was no little voice saying she couldn’t.