Dressing Up for Dinner

Out of the corner of the reflection, Margot captured Desrianne's blanched look of terror. "Caresse… what is it?" she asked, turning her attention to the bed. The Princess practically jumped from her chair, her own scream stifled. "Dara, to Desrianne. The far corner and protect her. She is my second mother and I'll not have anything happen to her." Authority rang in her voice, though there was no missing the trembling hint of fear that rode the adrenaline that raced in her veins. Backing to the edge of the bed, Margot watched the creature, hoping she could remember the command to close the woven curtains tight if need be.

"May I kill it?" Dara asks, relaxed and amused. "FLAMMA!" she shouts, which causes bright hungry flames appear in her open palm. "Or do you wish to keep it in a box, or on your bed as a pet?"

The mouth and its accouterments reform first as the shape begins to flow upwards and assume a human-like shape. "I would prefer not, my sweet." The voice and cadence are familiar, even if not exactly in the right vocal register yet. "I had not expected to find you still here."

Eyes narrow at the beast near the bed with a head cocked with curiosity. Her hand waves Dara's enthusiasm off. "Extinguish that. There is no need for flame…Kendall?"

Fur and tentacles fade as flesh and bone take shape, and within only a handful of heartbeats Kendall stands in the room next to the bed, holding something in his hand.

"Yes," he acknowledges with a nod as his head finishes forming. He turns to the bedside table and sets down a handful of crystals, then rings the bell to summon his servant.

The appearance of the crystals snaps Dara into a wariness, a hand going to the hilt of one of her weapons.

"You have always had a flare for entry, but I must admit this was beyond even what I could imagine." Her brow furrows. "Are you alright? What … is … that … scent?"

The door rustles open to admit Rory, and Desrianne takes the opportunity to mutter a hurried, "Please excuse me… I must get…" But whatever it was she was planning to get is unintelligible as she rushes from the room, her face a ghastly pale mask of horror.

Kendall looks at Margot, does a double take and flicks his gaze over her in a quick appraisal. Dara had left nothing to chance. The gown had been altered so that a sweeping neck now barely clung to the ridge of her shoulders and hung low to reveal the creamy top of her bosom. The bodice fitted tight to the hip where cascading sheets of silver fell in waterfall pools to her feet.

"Bilge water," he answers simply. Brushing past her, he goes over to the other side of the cabin to where Rory was pouring some cleansing water into a bowl to bathe his master. "My tour of the ship took an…unexpected turn."

"So it would seem," Margot replies, watching him cross to the other side of the room before her eyes flicker to the cabin door, concern for her maid registering on her face. "Did you find what you were seeking?"

He stands still as Rory begins bathing him with a soft cloth. "Ah… yes. Somewhat," he answers vaguely.

"Somewhat?" Margot inquires. She studies Kendall, watching him and how his body responds, the way Dara observes. Not that Margot truly believed she'd get an answer, but she was more curious as to what the crystals were and why they captured Dara's attention.

Kendall turns so Rory can clean his back. He looks at Dara when he replies. "Somewhat, as in finding some, but not all, of what I sought. Many are still missing. If they left the ship, that would be one thing, but I suspect they are still here and have already been placed."

"Dara, please check on Desrianne's health and when we are expected for dinner," Margot directs.

"No, I would prefer the Lady Dara stay for now," he interrupts. "We will arrive for dinner when we arrive. Tinor must wait on Chanicut and your maid is secondary."

Margot's eyes rest upon Kendall for a long moment before moving to Dara. "As you wish, Kendall. Dara, please stay."

The princess sits on the edge of the bed. "Is there … an immediate demand for Dara's vast knowledge or council?"

"Tis the Tr-kuna crystals, isn't it?" Dara questions.

He nods to both questions. "Indeed," he says to Dara. To Margot he adds, "I believe t'would be wise for she and I to talk about the crystals now rather than later, since we do share a somewhat common goal at present."

He gives his attention back to Dara as Rory sets the bowl and cloth aside and goes to the chest to select the Lord's clothing.

"I suspect the Countess is not aware of the theft of the crystals, though their presence on board ship was clearly not intended to be common knowledge," he says. "I may… speak to her on the topic while at dinner."

"To what purpose?" the Hellmaiden asks.

"She knows her people far better than anyone from our party. She may have insight on where to find the plotter," he says. "If such is in her best interest to do so. What do you know of this Countess?"

Margot sat quietly, listening to the Chaosians speak.

"Perhaps if you were of the same House, but with you being from Chanicut…" Dara leaves the rest unsaid. "As to the Countess, I know enough. While a minor player in her house, she is a gifted seductress but with limited ambitions."

She looks to her Mistress. "A perfect dagger for whatever your ultimate inclinations may be."

Rory presents for his master's inspection a long, flowing garment of a deep green decorated with glittering gold embroidery. Kendall evaluates the garment with a quick glance and then looks at his servant for two heartbeats. That sort of silent communication passes between them, and then the Lord nods. Once the first garment is draped over him, Rory produces several lengths of black and gold sashes that he uses to tie the billowing fabric close to Kendall's body with elaborate knots.

"Even with limited ambitions, there is still potential," he comments as his servant garbs him. "One must simply discover where these ambitions lie." His gaze falls to Margot as he considers those words for five beats of the heart.

"It would seem to me the most direct way of discovering her ambitions would be to ask her," the princess points out. "Or at the very least, to get the Countess to talk about Tinor and its history, its traditions, its hopes for the future. While it may be a difficult for either of you to engage her in this with any sense of sincerity, these are things that I would be genuinely curious about. But, perhaps a direct approach is not … reasonable."

Once more her eyes returned to Kendall's. "If my presence is otherwise a distraction or burden with my constant interruptions, perhaps this would be a proper time for me to check on Desrianne's condition… unless there are objections?"

Kendall tilts his head to the side as he evaluates Margot, a hint of a smile appearing. His attention is diverted once more as Rory begins wrapping a wide sash around his waist, black fabric shot through with gold thread. "If you believe yourself ready to engage the Countess in such a manner, to question and cajole her and discover her… interests… I am willing to place that into your hands."

"As for the other—" He pauses, and his expression takes on that look of thoughtful concentration as he considered how best to say what he wanted to say.

Rory gives a final tug to the last knot before stepping back. The completed arrangement is dramatic. Silky cords hold the billowy green fabric close to his body at elbows, wrists, and waist. The matching pants are similarly tied in place with gold and black sashes braided from ankles to just below the knees and tied off with more knots. If nothing else, it would not be a simple or speedy matter for Kendall to become unclothed. Well, unless he used shifting, of course. Yet, the challenge of unwrapping could be part of the allure.

"You may depart, of course, if that is your choice," Kendall says to Margot. "Though I wonder if you wish to leave because of your maid or because of the topic of conversation. Rory can see to your maid, if that is your true concern."

"Rory, would you be so kind as to seeing to Desrianne's well-being and alert me should there be anything serious in her condition?" Margot asks.

Rory gives his master a questioning look after receiving Margot's request, and Kendall impatiently waves a hand. Giving a bow to his lord and respectful nods to both ladies, the servant takes himself out on his errand while the princess stands and begins pacing around the cabin, smoothing her gown in a nervous gesture.

"As for the conversation, you are aware of my lack of … experience … with intrigues and preference for a direct, open approach," Margot continues as she walks. "I do not understand what is being discussed beneath the words that you and Dara share, and there is not the time and I doubt the desire to stop every few moments and break down what must seem to be the obvious to the two of you and explain the nuances and subtleties to the child."

Kendall goes over to the table and sits down while Margot speaks, stretching his legs out and crossing his bare feet at the ankles.

Margot is privately proud of the calm, reserved, and peaceful air she maintains as she addresses the pair. "Talk of supreme seductresses, I will admit, is distressing to me. I suppose it is something that I will have to become accustomed to; though I had hoped it would wait until after we had landed on Chaosian shores."

The next comment she directs at Dara, who seemed bound and determined to remind Margot at every turn that Kendall would never be hers and therefore she must play this game of availability.

"But, I do want to make something very clear: Kendall has my loyalty and devotion. This—" the princess gestures to her appearance. "This is part of the intrigues Chaos so readily enjoys. If it serves a purpose, fine, but understand that I will not betray him no matter what sort of porcelain doll I am dressed to look like."

Dara elevates an eyebrow over that declaration, looking to Kendall in hope he would explain why such a statement was so wrong. But while he does not look especially pleased to hear Margot's declaration — and perhaps his mind was still preoccupied with other thoughts — he does not demur her declaration right away.

Finding no ally, the Hellmaiden says, "Never would I give voice to that again, for if you do Mistress… True sorrow will be at its end."

"No doubt," he says in response to Dara with irony lacing his tone. "True sorrow lies at the end of most endeavors. But those tales are for another time. For the present… Margot, the most basic learning comes from observation. However, I do see the need to make some explanations to aid your understanding."

"Those are known as Tr'kuna Crystals. Effectively, they are… explosives with delayed activation," he says, indicating the four crystals lying on the bedside table with a nod. He speaks unhurriedly, as though they had all the time in the world.

"They must be charged with energy first. Just about any energy will do, and once they reach the limits of their capacity, they shatter and release the stored energy in a destructive ancd often deadly blast," he continues. "This ship has on board a large store of these crystals, though care was taken to mask that fact. One could speculate why a House allied to Hendrake would have a large store of destructive crystals on board a vessel destined for Amber…but in any event, the crystals were still secure on board until quite recently."

He studies his fingernails, making minute adjustments to their length and shape while he continues his explanation. "I discovered their disappearance by chance, and went in search of them. Those are only a small number. The others are still unaccounted for, and therefore, dangerous to you, me, Brisbane, and everyone else in Chanicut. It matters not at all what the real target may be — whether in Chanicut or Tinor — because if the crystals sink the ship, we will ALL be very inconvenienced."

He gives his attention once more to Dara. "Which is why enlisting the aid of the Countess may be an effective strategy. I cannot imagine Tinor's resources would permit the loss of crystals or ship to pass without comment or retribution. Thus, the Countess, if she is not involved in the conspiracy, could very well be the one with the highest interest at stake."

Margot bit her tongue against the first thing that wanted to slip her lips: the question whether she'd be lying alone tonight. She guessed it didn't matter. Her eyes move from one Chaosian to the other, and she knew.

"All true, Lord Kendall," Dara says with a chill, once more a Hendrake's Maiden. "Mistress, may I have permission to attend to your welfare?" she asks of Margot, her tone deferential for such a task.

"Yes, of course, Dara." Her eyes rest on Kendall's unconcerned form, jaw tight as she works to control her breathing. Feeling herself beginning to lose that battle, she turns to study her reflection in the mirror, checking her appearance and also to give herself a reason not to look at her lover. "Then, what is it exactly you require of me this evening? Is there more to be discussed and planned before we are to enjoy Timor hospitality?"

A frown comes to Kendall's face, his gaze shifting from Margot, to Dara, and then back. A breath. "Yes, three things, I believe," he says, standing up and moving over to stand behind the princess. He looks at her in the mirror, placing his hands on her shoulders. "For the first, you asked what role you could play, and what is required of you. If you would question the Countess, begin to learn of her interests and motivations, that could be quite helpful. You may not succeed, but the effort alone could be beneficial and also educational. Are you willing?"

The reflection's gaze meet the Lord's; her shoulders and posture holding tension that the serenity of her face did not reveal. "You first of all should know how interested I am in cultures. I would be delighted to learn more of the Countess and Tinor's ways."

His expression lightens with a hint of a smile. "Thank you, Margot. The second is, please tell me what is distressing you."

Once more, eyes met his with a calm that seemed to becoming more practiced. "This talk of crystals and the implications of them, for there is no good to be had from their disappearance. Insinuations and the striking reality that I may be spending the night alone in this bed. And the fact that—"

Her eyes fall to where her hands clasped together at her waist, though her posture remains rigid and poised. "Dara has made it clear on more than one occasion that if I fail this evening's simple test, it's nothing to simply kill them all and pretend that nothing ever happened."

Kendall turns his head to look at Dara, then returns his attention to Margot. "Yes, about that," he says, expression becoming serious once more. "That is the third item to be addressed. I want to make certain you understand that she is prepared to proceed with that plan immediately, since you have — inadvertently I am certain — given her your blessing to do so. In order to protect you from an unknown enemy, tis most expedient to simply kill all possible suspects."

"That I understand," she said after a slow exhalation. "That addresses only part of what is distressing to me," she counters, returning her attention to the object in the mirror.

He pauses, cocking his head to the side, thinking. Margot's reply to his last statement is not as expected, and he is not certain if that is because of his own miscalculation, or Margot's.

"I do not want bloodshed," she explains. "But it's Dara's role not only to be my delicate wrist but to also be my steel." These words release the Princess's emotions, and she blinks away tears and takes a breath to regain command of her voice.

Kendall's aspect of thought evaporates as Margot answers, and he turns to pace away from her a few steps before he replies. When he does speak, he looks at Dara rather than the princess, though his words are addressed to the younger woman. "Margot, I think if you do not want bloodshed, you should ask the Lady Dara exactly how she will attend to your welfare, as she phrased it, before she leaves to do so."

Blood drains from an already alabaster complexion as anxiety strangled her heart. The Princess draws the next few breaths with great concentration — slow and deliberate — before she felt ready to speak. "Please answer the question, Dara. What are your intentions?" Margot knew she was shaking with emotion, but her voice was firm, bordering on angry. "How is it you plan to see to my welfare?"

Dara stares at Lord Kendall for a moment longer, before answering. "Secure you and your servant, and members of House Chanicut upon the Black Road to continue our travel." Then with a shrug, she adds, "As to the rest, your safety would be ensured till we arrived in Chaos."

"Is it your intent the moment you leave these quarters to massacre those of who are not part of our retinue? The Countess and the rest of House Tinor? Is that your idea of seeing to the welfare of your Lady?" Margot asked directly, a razor's edge slicing through her tone.

"Due to my weakness with imprisonment, I personally would not ascribe the word massacre to what I'm about to do. More," Dara tilts her head to the side, trying to decide. "Mayhap 'lopsided' if clarification was one's desire."

Kendall's lips twitch with amusement at this answer, and he gives Margot a sidelong glance to see what the princess would say to this… admission of her Lady in Waiting's limitation.

The temperature within the small confined space chilled, as cold rage consumed the young woman. "I do not find this remotely amusing or enchanting. Glib does not wear well on you, Dara. Your word games and loopholes and taking advantage of my lack of knowledge ceases now, Sister. A Lady in Waiting, like a Sister, knows the heart and mind of her Lady. Obfuscation and subterfuge is not acceptable. Not with me. What exactly were you planning to do once you left this cabin in the noble guise of my welfare?"

There is an eerie calm, a frigidity in her voice. It was times like these where Margot forgot herself; forgot that she was a timid young woman in love who was not raised in Amber. Times where she drew from an inner well not yet revealed to her fully, commanding respect and dominion over those that were hers to command. "What were you about to do? Explain. Leave nothing out."

"Violence and death, Milady," Dara explains. "You do seem surprised that a former Hellmaiden from the blood soaked halls of House Hendrake would behave so. Death is the simplest answer to betrayal or threat." She shrugs, looking at them both. "But you seem to have an issue with that, so I merely wished to allow some evasions so not to trouble you more than necessary."

Looking to Kendall, she goes on. "If you wish to blame anyone, blame your dearest. He knew what I would do once I saw such evidences. Without doubt, if your enemy wears not a face… then all wear it! So all must be dealt with the same! By killing all on this boat, I could be saving your life more then just this once. And if that is wrong, then how so? Tinor is a minor House, no tears will be spilt when this boat doesn't return."

Her eyes going back to Margot, fierce and clear. "Death is not in your hands here, Milady. It's not a red debt upon your soul, nor coins to hold and crush! Tis Life, Milady. Tis a threat!"

Placing her hand upon her sword, Dara continues. "So let me take care of it, like finding a lost shoe. You would not ask me the why or the where. You would accept, and move on with your day. So here, we have the same."

She shakes her head in the negative to still any doubts. "All of them knew death could await them in Amber if they went. I'm merely fulfilling that foretelling, if perhaps in a later date. But they should have never threatened She who I serve, so I wish to enlighten."

Kendall shakes his head a little, letting out a breath as he returns to the table and sits in one of the chairs once more. Facing the room, one arm on the table, he gives Dara a hard look with mouth pressed firm before turning to Margot.

"The Lady Dara is partially correct, Margot," he admits. "I did know what conclusion she would reach upon learning of these circumstances. I shared them with her nonetheless, as a courtesy, so she would be prepared to see to your safety against this threat. Also, yes, killing all on board who are Tinor would be the simplest solution, and no doubt simple is the way the Hendrake would prefer to keep things. Any repercussions here would touch Chanicut and not her." He makes a 'there you have it' sort of gesture with one hand, palm up.

"I had, however, hoped to convince you, and by extension, Dara, of the value of first attempting to ascertain the nature of the threat," he continues, still speaking calmly and patiently, unhurried. "This would involve more subtlety, I will admit, but is not beyond possibility. Yet the crystals are not an immediate threat, since they are not yet charged and the theft was quite recent. I expect that we have at least to the end of dinner before serious concern would be warranted."

Margot expels anger and frustration in a sharp breath. The muscles along her neck and shoulders were drawn so tight with stress and tension, she didn't know how she would be able to possible present a pleasant and relaxed facade. "I would prefer subtlety and information gathering first and thought that was what I suggested before all of this," she says, her voice echoing the stress in her posture. She felt as though she had just endured a battle and they had not even entered the dining chamber yet.

"I appreciate your dedication and passion, Dara," she adds. "And I appreciate your stance of plausible deniability. But there is a time for a blunt instrument and a time for a delicate touch. I know your reputation for your cutting down armies, for your brilliant tactics and strategic mind; but I also want to learn from your ability to draw information out of others without them realizing it; seducing the truth into your hands as easily as dew flows from the blossom. Let us be patient through dinner and determine the true threat. Once we know with certainty, it may be dealt with swiftly and without mercy. Does this seem reasonable to the both of you?"

"No…no it isn't," Dara declares. "The whys are meaningless, Milady. For tis their nature, as the spilling of blood is mine. So I must remind you, they are allies of Hendrake, my House, whose very nature is conflict. The Countess could deal damage to you, Milady. Words can be as sharp as any sword, and she can only be a master of such to be sent to Amber. So by delaying, you could put great risk to you and yours."

And then with shrug she adds. "But if this is the Way you wish to travel, I guess we could write it off as a practice run for when you do meet one of the stronger houses. At least here, we can get rid of the missteps."

Kendall nods in agreement. "The Lady is correct again. The whole affair may prove a failure, in terms of discovering useful information. But for you to begin your learning of the ways of Chaos, this seems as opportune a time as any."

"Failure or not, Minor House or not, cutting a swath of death through all that travel with us without any insight is unacceptable," Margot asserts with conviction. "Any offenses to your honor and your House may be addressed, Dara, in time. Let the Countess unleash her viper's tongue. Use me as the target. After all, that's the point, is it not? Now at least, there is purpose to prodding other than to entertain bored intellect. I trust that you will be ever vigilant to see that nothing untoward happens to threaten my well-being during the meal."

She moves her gaze to focus on her lover. "And I expect you to observe the Countess for any slip, any vital information that is to be had. Your uncle will undoubtedly have the Countess blathering and sharing more than she realizes; his charm is impossible to refuse. What do you say?"

"We shall see, then, what knowledge can be gained before taking more direct action," Kendall says. "In Chanicut, the 'whys' are important, or… if naught else, they can be useful."

He stands and takes two small steps to place himself in front of Margot. "As that appears settled, I believe we may proceed to dinner." He gives her a bow, the ends of his sashes fluttering. "Princess Margot, may I say you look ravishing. Would you care to join me for dinner with Countess Anira of Tinor?"

The princess's eyes falter, bashful still when it came to the simple act of compliments, before meeting his once more. "Thank you, Lord Kendall. It would be an honor to be your guest and companion this evening."

Dara merely rolls her eyes at youth and its exuberance.

Kendall retrieves the remaining crystals from the table before returning to offer his arm to Margot, keeping the objects safely on his person for now. The vine door opens to reveal an array of Qur hopping about as they await their master's appearance. Margot reminds herself that she was entering into an intricate dance, that she had an integral part of the choreography, that she must possess a regal yet serene composure.

The last was not so difficult, being on Kendall's arm; he had a way of making her feel more beautiful and precious than anything in all the cosmos… or the multiverse. It did not matter if he felt that way; only that while they were together, he did everything in his power to see that she did. So, it was with a graceful and fluid gait that she traveled casually at her lover's side.

The lights in the hall dim against the glory of a Lord and Lady off to dine for the first time. He steals a sideways glance at his companion as they walk, his mouth turning upwards in a rather proprietary smile. While physical beauty was understood and valued differently among shapeshifters than among those with static forms, she was still by no means an embarrassment to a scion of Chanicut.


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Dinner with Countess Anira

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