“My father is not here.”
With a start, Caryssia turned to find the source of the clear voice echoing through what she had thought was an empty library. In the great leather chair behind the familiar desk belonging to Lord Magister Kieran Duskflame sat an elf barely into her adolescence, with long black hair and Kieran’s piercing eyes, wearing an indifferent pink dress and a sour expression. “He has been delayed, and you are early,” the girl continued, taking her gaze from Caryssia’s and returning to her book. “You may sit and wait if you like.”
Caryssia took a step forward, putting on a friendly smile. “Your father?” she inquired. “Let me guess: you must be Astoreth. The scholar.”
“I’m not the beauty, nor any of the athletes,” the girl replied, continuing to read. “So your deduction is well-founded.”
“I am –”
“Lady Caryssia Burnhart, born to Harwald and Laliana Daunserly of the Sunsail Anchorage Daunserlys, married to Lord Magister Varisen Burnhart of Silvermoon. You have two young children of your own. My father calls you Cary. I know.”
Caryssia blinked. “You… do.”
“I also know why you are here,” Astoreth sighed. “So don’t worry, I’ll clear out once my father returns, and leave you two to yourselves.”
Caryssia felt her cheeks redden, and she moved forward quickly to sit in a chair across from the girl. “Astoreth… let me explain…”
“There’s nothing to explain, Lady Burnhart,” Astoreth said evenly, looking up. “I’m under no illusions about the terms and conditions of my parents’ marriage, and the state of your own is frankly none of my concern. My father is, shall we say, fond of you, and thus far you’ve given me no especial reason to dislike you; it just so happens that I’ve chosen this library to study in for the same reason my father chose it for your rendez-vous – it’s remote, secluded, with a private entrance, and it’s the one place on our estate that my mother never goes.” She shrugged lightly and looked back down to her book. “So, societally-mandated awkwardness aside, I see no practical reason we can’t share this room civilly until he returns.”
As the girl spoke, Caryssia couldn’t help smiling. “You’re a straightforward one, aren’t you?”
Astoreth shrugged. “It serves my purposes.”
“It’s refreshing,” Caryssia said. “More should endeavor to speak so clearly.”
Astoreth merely shrugged again in reply.
Several moments passed in silence.
“…that’s a… lovely gown you have on, Astoreth,” Caryssia finally ventured.
“You’re a lovely liar.”
Caryssia gave a short laugh. “Whatever are you talking about?!”
“Lady Burnhart,”Astoreth sighed, never looking up, “you’ve a reputation as a woman of taste and style. For days after each ball or dance or charity dinner the cream of Silvermoon high society talk about nothing but what you wore and how fabulous you looked. What’s more, you have two eyes in your head and do not appear to require any kind of corrective lenses. Thus, I may deduce that you, of all people, can clearly see that this dress is hideous.”
“The cut suits you well,” Caryssia countered. “The neckline accentuates your fine shoulders.”
Astoreth snorted. “Oh, the neckline is well enough,” she conceded, “but a neckline does not a garment make! Look at this thing!” She slammed her book closed and stood up to show off her gown. “The puffed sleeves hide my skinny upper arms, yes – but only make my lower look twiggier than ever. This bodice looks darling on my curvaceous mother, but only serves to highlight exactly how much of a bosom I don’t have by comparison. This crap around my hips is clearly tulle, intended to imply assets I’ve not been fortunate enough to yet develop and fooling no one in the process – there’s enough netting here to outfit three fishing boats – and I swear to you, Lady Burnhart, you could track down my little sister this very moment and find her chewing bubble-gum that is a less vile shade of pink. Pink!” She did a half-twirl to show off the frothy swirls before flopping back into her father’s chair.
“You don’t like pink?” Caryissa asked, smirking. The girl shot her back a glare. “What colors would you prefer, then?”
“Black,” Astoreth replied instantly. “Or purple.”
“Widows’ colors,” Caryssia observed.
“Suited for mourning the death of reason in our society,” Astoreth grumbled.
Caryssia chuckled at the slumping adolescent. ‘So why aren’t you wearing them?”
“I don’t have a choice,” she sighed. “Mother insists I use her favorite dressmaker. And if it’s not poofy and pastel then Master Greenwood won’t touch it.”
As the girl explained, Caryssia reached across the magister’s desk and deftly snatched a blank piece of paper from a stack at Astoreth’s elbow. “Why not make your own?” she asked, taking up a pen as well.
Astoreth eyed Caryssia curiously as the lady began to make rough lines on the clean paper. “Mother says tailoring is servants’ work,” Astoreth said finally.
Caryssia chuckled. “And that is why Orlaith Duskflame will wear poofy pastels to every ball long after it has ceased to suit her. True, Astoreth, any housemaid can darn a stocking or slap a patch on a pair of gardening overalls… but it takes an artist to create a statement out of mere cloth. Do you like red?”
The girl gradually sat up straighter in her chair, her ears flickering as she watched Caryssia sketch. “Red is… all right,” she finally allowed.
“You’re right; that pink washes out your face something terrible. You need something to complement and enhance the contrasts already inherent in your complexion – your fair, clear skin and dark hair – and that indeed makes black an excellent choice for you. But too much black will make those cheeks of yours look sallow, those slender wrists sickly.” She smiled at Astoreth as she reached across the table again for a red pen. “A nice, rich crimson red will make a bold statement, and bring out the blush in your cheeks – yes, Astoreth, I can see it there despite the terrible pink – and adding a touch of that same shade to your lips will complete the palette. Stick to simple lines to emphasize your assets, rather than your lovely mother’s… and I believe we shall have a dramatic look suited to your straightforward personality. You say you are not a beauty, Astoreth: I say you are simply not putting your best face forward. But if properly poised and more appropriately attired – Astoreth, I promise, you can have the eyes of every man on the dance floor following your every move.”
“I’m not much into boys,” Astoreth scoffed. “Which is just as well; no boy’s ever looked twice at me.”
“In that frumpy dress and unflattering scowl, it’s no wonder,” Caryssia chuckled, turning her page around and pushing it towards the girl. “But what about something like this?”
Astoreth leaned over the table to look at the sketch, and her eyes widened.
An hour later Kieran Duskflame unlocked his library door and entered to a most unexpected symphony of girlish giggling.
“Father!” Astoreth cried on seeing him, leaping up from his desk and racing over to him, practically bouncing with a sheaf of papers clutched in her hands. “Father! Father, I must have my allowance early. Please, please, may I? And next week’s too? I’ve a bit saved up, but I don’t think it’s quite enough and Lady Burnhart and I have come up with such ideas…!”
“Whoa, whoa, little springpaw,” he laughed. “What’s all this about?” He looked over to the very self-satisfied lady leaning back in his office chair. “Cary?”
“Your Astoreth has quite an eye for line and color,” Caryssia replied with a smirk.
“Father please — look at this!” Astoreth turned the pages in her hands so he could see. “Lady Burnhart made these sketches for me – look at this one, isn’t it lovely? – and I know Mother won’t hear of them, you know how she is – but if I can purchase the fabric then Lady Burnhart will teach me to sew them – Father, look at this one, won’t this be perfect for the Midsummer Ball? I know Mother’s going to want me to wear something atrociously yellow but if I just show up in this then she won’t be able to say a word and –“
Kieran put up his hand. “Wait, wait wait – is this the same Midsummer Ball you swore to me you were going to lock yourself in your room for? You’re going, now? Voluntarily?”
“If I can wear this dress I will!” she pleaded.
The magister laughed. “All right, all right, little springpaw. We’ll go to the Bazaar on Friday and get whatever you need.”
“Promise?” Astoreth gasped.
“I promise. Now, don’t you have studying to do?”
“Yes Father! Thank you Father!” the girl giggled and dashed back to the magister’s desk to retrieve her near-forgotten book. “Lady Burnhart?” she said, clutching book and sketches to her breast. “Will you come back this weekend for our first lesson? Please?”
Caryssia grinned. “Of course, Astoreth. I’ll work it out with your father. Now go on.”
Astoreth beamed and impulsively hugged the lady before dashing out the door. Kieran Duskflame watched his daughter race away with a look of befuddlement. “Cary,” he asked finally, “What in the world did you do to her?”
“I listened to her,” Caryssia smirked, rising from her chair and crossing to the magister. “She seemed to need it.”
Kieran frowned at her. “I listen to her!”
“About boys?” Caryssia raised an eyebrow.
He looked flustered. “Well… no, but… I mean…”
“Exactly,” she grinned and wrapped her arms around his shoulders. “She’s amazingly like you, Kieran. It’s no wonder she and Orlaith are at odds. And I’m certain you do your best – but there are just some things girls don’t share with their fathers.”
Kieran raised his eyebrow at her, even as he wrapped his arms around her waist. “You can’t be her mother, Cary.”
“No,” Caryssia replied. “But I’d like to be her friend.”
Kieran chuckled. “That, I think, is all right.”