Part Three of “The Night Stair” is up at Gamut!
Here’s a snippet from the opening of the tale:
The Steward is a tall man, entirely bald, gaunt in the face, yet rotund in the belly. His legs in their loose fawn linen trews, look like a scarecrow’s, sticking out under the awning of his gut – perpetually in shade perhaps they don’t get enough light to grow. His tunic of padded green silk, his sable wool coat with its thick fur collar, are too warm even for the end of summer, but as marks of his office, must be seen, just like the yellow crystal hanging about his neck. Called the “Steward’s Gaze”, it’s the size of the top joint of a man’s thumb, and has passed from incumbent to incumbent for as long as anyone has the will to recall. He puts it in his mouth and sucks hard when he thinks no one is watching. It’s worth a king’s ransom, and I’ll warrant the gold chatelaine belt around his waist could buy the city’s food for half a year.
His finery makes me aware of the state of my black dress – not that it’s poor or made shiny by age, but it belonged to others before me. Both my sisters – my only full-blood siblings – wore it to their own choosing. I am certain I can smell them, their scents imprinted into the warp and weft of the fabric despite washing. The colour makes my skin paler, my eyes bluer, provides the perfect background for the tresses, which pour down my back like gold fresh from the smelter. I was careful, so careful with my toilette: brushing my hair, one hundred strokes; rubbing the cream that was my mother’s (comfrey and rose to soften and plump, a little lemon balm for lightening) into my skin; drops of eyebright to ensure my gaze is clear. I refrained from pinching my cheeks – pale is best – but I did nip gently at my lips, to carmine them a little, so it seems as if all life is concentrated there. I will not be found wanting.
I stand in line with seven other girls who have been presented this day. We are of an age, none more than sixteen springs, and there is only one of them, perhaps two, who might outdo me. To my right is Essa, with her milky skin and eyes like the sky reflected in ice, hair bright platinum; even her nails seem to have a silvery sheen. She watches me from the corner of her eye, just as I watch her.
To my left is Dimity, whose eyes are bright green, her cheeks with the tiniest hint of pink. She keeps her regard firmly fixed upon her own feet. Our Lady best likes girls who resemble herself; that is not Dimity for all her snow-washed whiteness – the eyes are all wrong and the eyes count.
So, Essa. Essa is the one to beat – the Steward will surely select between the two of us.