The morning light slanted through the window onto the bed, softened by luminous lace white curtains. The light crept across silky sheets and climbed the cheek of the sleeper.
Ruby's eyes fluttered open. She rolled away from the blinding dawn and waited for her head to clear.
Her room was bright—white tiled floors with velvet runners, walls muraled with pastel leaves, vines and trees, the scene accented with gold paint. The room had looked very different under gaslight the evening before. It captured the morning's rejuvenating light as if it were created specifically to inspire its occupant to wakeful vigor.
Ruby climbed out of bed, her silky nightshirt tickling across her back as she moved. A pair of soft slippers waited beside the bed. She stared down at them.
This was more luxury than she could take. After weeks in the woods sleeping on the ground, picking campfire ash out of her food and constant grit between her toes, even the observatory had felt like a heavenly respite. But the royal treatment and comforts she received here at the king's palace since arriving last night redefined what heavenly meant.
She stepped around the slippers, shuffled towards the French doors and pulled one open. Radiant morning spilled in. Outside was a balcony with marble balustrades, overlooking the city. Ruby stepped out and took in the endless splendor of Cavaheim in the morning light.
Cavaheim did not look like the home of flying kidnappers and a king plotting the end of the world. It was a city of white columns, manicured gardens and cobblestone streets. The city stretched over miles of foothills, half of it overshadowed by the pinnacle of rock that stretched up and faded into the clouds above. At the edge of the shadow on the next foothill to the south, Ruby spotted the familiar statue she'd seen before from the observatory. The hooded figure of the "Holy Usurper." It towered over the city, even higher than the palace in which she stood. The looming monument of awe and fear felt out of place.
Ruby stood for several minutes gazing down at the shimmering city, pondering the bizarre circumstances that had led her here. What was she going to do now? Kill the king? Fight the dragon riders? How could she be of any use to anyone in this vast metropolis? Hera must have been crazy.
"You are awake, Miss Tanner." It was a woman's voice, a firm contralto that carried both command and deference. Ruby turned and found the woman standing at the bedroom door. She was a tall, imposing figure, birdlike features with sharp eyebrows and hair drawn back in a severe braid. She wore a pale blue pantsuit, a clipboard cradled close to her side. The woman muttered a moment, then added, "Good. You will need to prepare before your audience with his majesty."
Ruby stared at the woman. "Uh..."
"I am Tachma, palace staff manager and servant of King Basha. I will see to your needs while you are a guest of the king."
"Thanks." Ruby stammered, lost for words. This imposing woman was here to serve her? "You, uh, speak English."
The woman paused, then gave a curt smile. She pointed at a black device lodged in her right ear. She muttered, then said, "This is a translator, a recent acquisition from cities far south of here. We have... (mutter)... adapted it to suit our needs."
"There are only a handful of people in the city who have such devices," Tachma said. "The Ord issued this to me yesterday morning when... we learned you would be coming."
Ruby thought back. Yesterday morning, she'd been in the picnic pavilion out in the woods, watching the rain and waiting for Montrose. "You knew I was coming?"
"I suspect King Basha has known for some time. His sight reaches far into the future and spans the whole world and beyond."
"You will want to bathe before your audience with the king. And we'll bring you breakfast."
"You will join Lady Montrose soon. For now..." She stepped back and pulled the door aside, admitting two girls in matching dresses and aprons. "We must get you ready."
The girls both froze when they spotted Ruby. "Oh, sei," one of them whispered. Ruby shied back. Their stares unsettled her.
Tachma scowled at the servants. "Bagt Treff," she snapped. The girls flinched at the rebuke and slinked away towards the huge bathroom.
"Don't worry," Tachma said with a sniff. "They will perform their duties with professional poise, as befits their training."
"Why do they look at me like that?"
Tachma's eyebrows drew together, forming a sharp knot on her forehead. "Don't you know?"
Ruby thought back to Hera's first reaction to her. She remembered the people she'd met outside Cavaheim the day before. They all saw her as a weird omen—Lady Chaos.
"I guess I do," Ruby said.
Tachma showed none of the awe that the others had. She nodded. "You can expect many will show similar surprise when they see you."
"Would you bring me a hoodie or something? So people don't stare."
"Hoodie," Tachma repeated. "We'll see. For now, you need to prepare." She turned to the door. "If you need me, tell your servants. They can send for me." She nodded and walked out.
"My servants? Wait, I don't need any—"
The door clicked shut.
Ruby stared at the door. From the bathroom, she heard running water.
It was one of the serving girls. Ruby turned. The girl pointed at the bathroom door. "Gahn taska."
"Um, I can take a bath by myself."
The girl was Ruby's age—slightly taller. She blinked at Ruby and continued to point at the door.
Ruby sighed. "This is just so freaking awkward." She took a deep breath, held it, and followed the girl into the bathroom.
* * *
She didn't recognize the dress at first. They'd pulled it over her head, added a pin here and there, then one went straight to work on her hair while the other applied makeup. She didn't know where they'd taken her glasses. She wasn't blind without them, but she squinted at everything, much to the chagrin of the girl who applied eye makeup.
When they finished, they led her to a tall mirror.
Ruby saw enough to recognize what they'd done. This was a dress to match the one from the statue in the town square. It was a creamy ivory color and hung with the same flowing lines captured in the marble of the iconic likeness. She understood now why they hadn't put her hair up or done anything fancy to it. They intended her to look exactly like the statue.
"Where are my glasses?" she asked. She looked around.
The girls only shook their heads, uncomprehending.
"I can't go around looking like this. People will stare."
The girls were already staring. They nodded and whispered with reverent awe.
"Stop that," Ruby snapped.
One of the girls drew her out to the bedroom. A tray of pastries and a glass decanter of water waited there. Ruby realized she was starving. She shoved a glazed roll into her mouth while pouring herself a glass of water.
The girls stood back, watching. After a few bites, Ruby felt their attention on her.
"You want some of this?" she asked.
The girls said nothing.
Ruby pointed at the pastries, then at the girls. One of the girls shook her head.
Three sharp knocks came at the door. It opened, and Tachma stepped in. She looked Ruby over and nodded. "Good. You're ready. You must follow me now."
"What about my shoes?"
"I can't go barefoot."
Tachma frowned. Ruby guessed what the woman had intended. In the statue, she'd been barefoot. They wanted her to appear authentic.
"I'm not going anywhere without shoes," she said. "And I need my glasses."
Tachma nodded. "We will provide you with footwear. As for your eyeglasses..." She paused, cocked her head thoughtfully, and said, "You will get those back later."
"But I need them."
"And you shall have them, but not during your audience with the king."
As Tachma gave orders to the serving girls, Ruby considered her position. She was almost a religious figure for some of these people, all because she resembled an old statue. What purpose did it serve to dress her up this way?
A minute later, one of the girls returned with a new pair of silk slippers, ones that matched the dress. She knelt and pulled them onto Ruby's feet. It wasn't what Ruby wanted, but it would be better than nothing on the cold marble palace floors.
"That will do," Tachma said, "Now, follow me to the throne room."