This is set in my Cage of Glass universe, where a young ceramist gives herself up as a slave in exchange for her sister’s freedom. You can read more here.
This would be the first time she came out of the Castle, ever since she entered at the service of the Zalethi.
Eteri did not know what to expect… or even if she should expect anything. Her mother used to say that those who live by hope die by surprise.
She twirled on the spot, taking a look at the dress that they had prepared for her for this occasion.
If a series of hollow glass beads that covered her body could even be called a dress of any sort…
“You look good,” Nives said. The blonde was another slavegirl, and Eteri had learned not to talk to her too much – she was always a bit skittish when it came to talk about winning or keeping the Zalethi’s favor, and Eteri needed to avoid turning her disapproval into enmity.
“Thanks. It would suit you better, though,” Eteri said with a flush on her dark cheeks. Tall, blue-eyed Nives was a much better example of Apua beauty than Eteri could ever represent her own people. Her sister Tatia was the beautiful one – and that was the reason why she had been chosen as a slavegirl first, and the reason why Eteri had thrown herself at the Zalethi’s feet, praying to be taken in her stead…
It felt like such a long time ago.
Life in the Castle moved to a different beat. It felt as if every day meshed into the previous and the next – she wouldn’t be able to tell if it was due to some quality of the Castle, or due to the presence of the Zalethi herself.
She who had been the ruler of these lands for so many millennia seems to carry with her a time abyss, and if Eteri did not mind her footing, she would lose her grip and slide right inside it.
“Are you still with us?” Nives flicked her shoulder, making the beads tinkle.
“Ah, yes! Sorry. I lost my thread for a moment.”
“Twelve above, what a waste of a good slavegirl!” Nives rolled her eyes and raised her palms to the sky, swearing to the Gods. “Just make sure not to make the rest of us look bad,” she sneered, leaving her alone before the mirror.
Eteri nodded at once – she wouldn’t know what to reply anyway.
Nives could be as moody as spring.
She took a final glance at herself, finding nothing wrong.
At last, she slipped on a pair of sandals – it would be the first time since she begged the Zalethi to take her under her wing that she was allowed to cover her feet.
Glancing at her surroundings, it wasn’t hard to understand why. The Birdcage was a huge garden covered with moss, blades of grass and flowers.
But the outside world…
As she took the first few steps, she wondered if this also came down to the mind games the Zalethi was playing with her: she did not need any protection, as long as she abandoned herself to the embrace of the Birdcage.
But she would not let her win.
She walked on the grass – the other slavegirls were already turning to their own businesses, forgetting all about her.
Eteri pursed her lips.
Well, if this was how they wanted to play…
She reached the huge glass doors that enclosed the Birdcage and they opened at her passage – she slithered right through them, feeling like a tiny mouse squirming into a huge mansion.
The sun felt different than she expected on her skin – much different than she remembered. It was… fainter and weaker than in the Birdcage. Maybe because its rays did not have to pass through the glass walls.
She wondered if for this first time outside the Zalethi would have requested her to parade with her on a carriage like she did on the day she asked to be taken in.
But no, it was a simple visit – their ruler was receiving a few Rasna dignitaries from the cities in the south, and she was the one who would offer them refreshment.
She tried to make herself as small as she could, standing upright while she held her amphora of spiced wine, filling the glasses whenever they got empty.
It reminded her of when she poured wine for her father at dinner, and she was reasonably sure she couldn’t muck something like that up.
Also, the dignitaries seemed much more interested in talking with the Zalethi than minding a slavegirl who was just trying to do her job.
So, as it happened, her mind did wander a little between their talks – she was not even supposed to listen, she had learned as much, but the conversation went back and forth while talking of taxes, resources and diplomatic minutiae that went way past her new station in life.
In fact, her eyes only lingered on the Zalethi, or the mosaic pattern of the parapet.
Their ruler was as astounding as ever, dressed in white robes that lingered on the marble floor, a stark contrast to her glassy skin, black and sparkling with stars and bursts of colored light. Not for the first time, Eteri felt like when the Twelve had decided on the Zalethi as their Herald and messenger, they had bottled up the night and given it a shape of woman.
She tapped with her fingers on the table as the others talked – if Eteri did not know any better she could have guessed her bored to tears – and her eyes then went to her face.
As always, everything just past her black, starry cheeks was covered by a helmet of frosted glass, impossible to see through.
Sometimes it looked more like a crown, sometimes a wide hat, but it always covered the upper part of her face, from the tip of her nose upwards.
She felt her eyes on her.
Eteri shivered and the wine sloshed inside the amphora. She gulped and looked past her – she did not want to feel scrutinized! It made her feel like the Zalethi could see through her as if she was made out of thin, clear ice.
There, the mosaic pattern. Something much closer to her experience – before coming to her service as a slavegirl, Eteri had once been a ceramist by trade – her family’s tradition – and by losing herself through the patterns she felt calm come back to her heart.
It was a bit like going back to the workshop together with her father, choosing the right material, learning how to create a stable flame and keep it hot enough… she missed those days.
The craftsmanship was exquisite and she could clearly see that from there, the decorations even seemed to similar to what she used to do in the workshop – she longed to just walk to the parapet and touch it with her hands, but the presence of the Zalethi stopped her.
She had to keep her composure.
And as luck, or perhaps the Twelve’s benevolent gaze, would have it, she did not make any mistakes.
When that evening she took off her sandals and came back to the embrace of the Birdcage, she felt like she did something good.
And she would not forget how the free air felt.
By night, the stars above glistened almost as clearly as they did inside the Zalethi’s body.
She stood against the same parapet where she had received the dignitaries that afternoon. But already their words and worries had washed over her like rain, leaving little to nothing in their wake.
No, what she cared about was in the mosaic.
She passed her smooth fingers over the shining pebbles. There was indeed a pattern to it, a series of symbols and numbers.
She was supposed to remember them – but time has a way to grind everything down between its teeth, and she had tried so hard to remember it or reconstruct it… all to no avail.
And then – this upstart of a girl, this second-rate ceramist, seemed to recognize that pattern everywhere a piece of it perked up from between the other decorations.
“To think she would be the one who can help me rebuild that code…” she chuckled, and the night air carried her voice away.
So much for knowing everything that happened under the Sun.
It seemed she could still be surprised.
Author’s Notes: well this was unexpected. I did not plan to write about these two today, but it’s the 12th day of November, and that prompted me to go back to them. I hope you enjoyed it and thanks for reading.