Part 3

Something Modest

"How do you like that camisole?" Syll asked over the divider. "I've got just the shawl to go with it."
Daiza stood behind a canvas awning that Kalaena and the squires stretched between two nasty-looking trees as a privacy screen. She had to share it with Ruadd's horses, all three of whom were munching on feedbags and eying the skeletal trees distrustfully.
"Having trouble with these buttons. Could you pass the lantern?"
Daiza put a hand over the screen but Syll came around instead. She set the lantern down on a knobby root between them. "I'll do it," she said, reaching for Daiza's chest.
Daiza glanced up and blushed. For all her teasing, Syll had about as much modesty as Ku. She had been in the middle of changing her bustiere--she had a thousand of the things--when Daiza made her request. So she'd just walked over, great pale breasts hanging naked in the wind.
Within seconds, her nimble fingers had Daiza buttoned up. "Can you lace me now?" She showed Daiza her back.
"Do I have to wear a shawl?"
"Tighter, girl. And yes. Peasant-girls all wear shawls. Can't have anyone seeing your pretty hair, can we? Wouldn't be modest."
Daiza pulled as tight as she could without using her knee, then tied the laces. Uncomfortable though it looked, she had to admit the corset molded and shaped Syll's already curvy figure into a perfect hourglass.
Not for the first time, she looked at Syll's breasts and thighs with envy.
Kalaena had once caught her giving Syll one of these looks. It resulted in a lengthy soliloquy about aging which could have been summed up as 'just wait.' Daiza didn't have to wait, though. She had Kalaena, her half-sister, not to mention her mother, to see what curves she could look forward to, which is to say none. Theirs was a tall, thin breed. The kindest word to describe Kalaena was 'willowy'--when she wasn't acting the soldier, that is. And when Daiza looked in the mirror, she didn't even see 'willowy.' She saw 'skinny' or 'scrawny' or even 'gangly.' She would never exude the raw sexuality that Syll did.
With a sigh, she thought of what Kalaena should have told her: an hourglass didn't snag every man. Syll could dress as sexy as she liked and Ku didn't look at her. Not in a way that mattered to the sixteen year old's mind. Kalaena, though--scrawny, scarred-up Kalaena--occasionally got his attention. He pretended not to, but Daiza was pretty sure she'd seen him admiring the Swordsister when he thought no one was watching him. The observation made her feel a little better about her narrow frame.

See? I make a better big sister than her, the girl thought. The world should've made me the elder...
There was a noise. Daiza looked up.

Syll was snapping her fingers in front of her face.
"Stop daydreaming and help me with this accursed braid. Peasants keep their hair like they keep their women--tied up and hidden." She chuckled to herself and crossed her arms over a horse's butt with her back to Daiza.
After her hair was finished, Syll insisted that she be allowed to do Daiza's.
"No," she protested when she saw what the dark-haired woman was doing.
"Stop it." Syll slapped her hand back down. "They're perfect."
Daiza pursed her lips while the pale hands wove her hair into two thin braids.
"There." Syll pinched her cheek again. "A cute little dairy maid."
Daiza was suddenly glad to put the shawl on. When she tried to tuck away the pigtails, though, Syll pulled them out again.
"You two decent?" Gillion asked, rounding the screen before they could answer. He was in the clothes Syll had given him. They were ill-fitting, but that only enhanced the illusion. They made him look like a younger brother wearing cast-offs.
"These are horrible," he said, holding up his arm so they could see the sleeve hang off his skinny wrist. "I feel like a damn scarecrow. Why do you have peasant-boy clothes anyway, Syll?"
"Sometimes I like to look like a peasant-boy." She wagged a finger at him. "Don't judge."
Gillion arched his brow but said nothing.
Daiza watched them quietly. She knew better than to ask. She strongly suspected that Syll's former profession was less than honest. Ruadd and Kalaena never spoke of it. Ruadd, in fact, actively discouraged such talk.
"Take your piercings out. They're much too flashy for an infiltration mission."
"Who said we're infiltrating?" Gillion asked. "I thought we were just buying supplies."
"Until we know they're friendly, it's an infiltration. Now take 'em out."

He cupped his hands over his ears. "No."
"Alright...if you won't remove them, we'll cover 'em. Here." She handed him a piece of faded blue cloth.
He held it at a distance like a filthy rag. "A baby bonnet? I know you think I look young, but--"
Syll shook her head so her short black braid settled on her shoulder. "It's a cowl."
"That sounds like a fancy word for baby bonnet."
Daiza cleared her throat. "Syll's not jesting, it's really a thing. The peasants where I come from wear 'em, too."
"Have you bigguns never heard of hats?" He lowered his voice. "Why did I ever leave the Davwick Skies?"
"We have to do something with you, Gillion. Right now you look like a sailor on leave."
"I am a sailor on leave."
"No, you're not," Kalaena interrupted, emerging from beyond the lantern light. A crimson hauberk glinted on her bosom, reminding Daiza of a cold-blooded, not-so-bright reptile. Apparently, she'd been changing clothes as well. Kuthaan followed quietly, which in Daiza's rather whimsical mood, reminded her of a loyal canine.
"You're scouts," the Swordsister told them. "This is a strange land. Caution and vigilance are the watch-words of the day. Get me?"
"We get you, sir!" Syll barked, offering a mock-salute.
Kalaena ignored her, focusing on Gillion instead. "Wear the cowl."
Gillion pulled it on, hiding his rows of earrings and his stubby little ponytail. It had the desired effect: all he lacked were the pimples.
Syll's eyes twinkled but she schooled her face well. Daiza, being considerably less controlled, looked away rather than let him see her smile. Even Kalaena's lips twisted a little.
He gritted his teeth and hoisted his crankbow over his shoulder.
"Leave the arbalest, Gillion. Take only what you can hide on your person."
"That's where these big skirts come in handy," Syll said, twirling her dress for effect. "I can hide anything under here."
"How about a crankbow?" he asked.
"Nah--the crosstree would stand out. Then it would look like I had a cock."
She winked at Daiza, who snorted loudly.
Kalaena ground her teeth and said nothing.
"Got plenty of blades, though," Syll added, pretending not to notice Kalaena's response. "If there's a throw-down, just ask nicely and I'll give you one." She raised her apron and chemise so they could admire the collection of poniards, daggers, and shortswords sheathed in her lacy black garters. It was veritable arsenal.
"Very nice," Gillion said.
Daiza noticed he wasn't looking at the weaponry.
"We should go." Kalaena turned crisply and motioned them to follow. "I saw what looked like a path earlier. Maybe it goes to a town. I'll show you to it. Then Kuthaan and I will join Ruadd." She gave Daiza a slight nod.
This she knew was her sister's way of telling her to walk closer for some clandestine advice. Problem was, everyone else knew as well. She'd done it enough times.
With a sigh, she trotted to catch up. Gillion and Syll followed at a polite distance, pretending not to listen. Syll was offering to hold Gillion's nose rings for him. Gillion demurred, saying he trusted his pockets more. The dark-haired woman pouted, feigning offense.
Kuthaan quietly took up the rear, as he always did.
"Stay alert," Kalaena whispered to her sister. "And whatever you do, don't trust Syll."
Daiza nodded glumly. It was the same advice she always got: be on your guard, keep your eyes peeled, this isn't a fairy-tale, blah-blah-blah...
"This is not one of those fairy-tale romances you read," the older sister said quietly.
Daiza smiled to herself.
Kalaena saw this and her lips tightened. "If things go wrong, you'll be on your own. So try not to let them go wrong."
"What about Gillion? He'll look out for me, won't he?"
The Swordsister gave her a stern look.
"Don't be so fucking paranoid. And frankly, I think Syll--"
"Do not trust that woman." Her eyes flashed at Daiza. She reached up to catch the girl by her upper arm but she backed quickly out of reach.

"And watch your language," the Swordsister hissed, letting her hand drop.
The maiden turned silently and tightened her shawl so her sister couldn't see her face. Her irritation melted, however, when she saw Kalaena loosen her blade in its sheath.
The trees thickened around them. Their naked, brittle boughs interlaced above, forming a grim canopy. The ground was bleak with pallid roots and scruffy little weeds. They had entered the forest, the forest which Daiza could tell made her sister so uncomfortable.
You have no idea, the younger sister thought, watching her sister move cautiously forward. If you could feel the dji here, you'd run scared back to the ship and hide under our bunk like a little girl.
Kalaena turned to look at her sister. The lantern light etched half her face red, leaving the other half in darkness.
"How far?" Daiza asked, resolving to hide her fear better and prove once again she was the adult among them.
"Not far. Did you bring that wand with you?"
"Only the ignorant call them wands. It's a rod of shoma wood."
"Well, whatever it is, did you bring it? You know I discourage using magic but in this case..." She let her voice trail off.
You only discourage it because you listen to Ku too much...because you want him to like you, she almost said. But he'll never fuck you, sis. He's just a damn monk in need of a haircut. So give it up and let me live my life.
Her sister was giving her a quizzical look. Shame suddenly cooled her stomach. "I'll be fine," she muttered, looking away.
To her surprise, Kalaena grabbed her shoulder and gave her a rough hug.
"Keep your eyes peeled," she whispered, her breath tickling Daiza's ears.
Daiza felt a dim bubble of amusement at her word choice, but Kalaena's look of concern froze the laughter in her throat.
"This is it," the Swordsister announced, releasing her.
The others came up and stopped.
"This is what?" Syll asked.
"The path." Kalaena drew her longsword and pointed with it. "See?"
"I don't see anything but toe-bashing roots and slipper-ruining mud. What's she talking about?"
Gillion took the lantern from Syll and squinted the direction Kalaena indicated. "I see it now. It's a path alright--just not a well-trod one. I'm guessing people don't come out this way much."
"Let's hope it goes some place with a hot bath and cold ale," Syll announced, patting Gillion's shoulder. "Well, lead on. I can't see the blasted thing, so you'll have to show us."
"Be on your guard," Kalaena told all of them.
Gillion nodded at Kalaena and started away. Syll quietly fell in behind him.
Daiza watched her sister turn and, sword still drawn, walk into the darkness with Ku. Now that they were alone, they went shoulder-to-shoulder. Neither spoke. She found it sort of depressing how much time those two spent together without talking.
Her own group, meanwhile, would not lack for words.
"You girls hear the one about the miller, the blacksmith, and the barber?" Gillion asked, lantern bobbing merrily in his grasp.
Syll picked her way carefully over the rough ground. "Don't leave us on tenterhooks. Tell the damn joke."
"Alright--so one night this blacksmith, a miller and a barber all go down to the brothel..."
Daiza never heard the punchline. She felt a flash of pain and swore softly to herself. Gillion, short as he was, hadn't been holding the lantern high enough and she stubbed her toe on a shadowed root. The peasant-slippers Syll had given her offered no protection at all, which made the girl wonder if they were really peasant slippers at all.
Maybe it would've been better to see the chain, she thought.

©2015 Christopher Beats. All Rights Reserved.

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