For perhaps the twentieth time, she resisted the urge to touch her swollen cheek. She knew no one had noticed the bruise, she had become quite adept at hiding them over the years, but even Krista might suspect something if she kept fiddling with it. Krista… She looked over at him with a mixture of admiration and vexation. He was as handsome as she remembered, his feathers a blaze of color in the already colorful room. Rüktiv would keep it so crowded with tapestries and artwork of all sorts — it would have looked much more elegant if he’d just let her throw half of it away. Or donate it to a temple — temples liked that kind of thing. But she had never been able to convince him that less was sometimes better. And by now she had given up trying.
Her hand had lifted halfway to her face before she caught herself. She turned the movement into a gesture at the slave standing near her, a whippet with the unlikely name of Gyarrráhdi. He bowed slightly and headed for the kitchen, taking a half-empty tray of pastries with him, his several anklets jingling softly as he went.
The hyena — Janjan? Ganjan? was making the most absurd faces as he tried to keep the conversation limping along. At least Tábudh was enjoying herself. Poor thing, she needed a laugh. She was always so serious — she spent hours in her room, praying to that shrine she’d begged Rüktiv to set up for her. He had indulged her, of course. He indulged all his wives — including herself, she thought ruefully, restraining her hand once more. She shouldn’t have tried to talk him out of a chance to do business. He was always very keen on business. But this was Krista!
She glanced his way once more, and was startled to see him approaching. On the other side of the room, Rüktiv was deep in conversation with the assassin, no doubt feeling him out for future work, but he shot her a quick warning glance. Don’t screw this up for me. She clacked her beak once in annoyance, then turned to Krista with a smile.
He had noticed. Well, not the bruise, but her general dissatisfaction with the proceedings. It did not do to underestimate Krista. To all appearances he was simply a vain fop, his obsessive fascination with his appearance an amusing foible for those who liked to have someone to look down on. Several of her less kind acquaintances had intimated that he had stayed with her as long as he did only because her drab plumage provided such a striking contrast to his own. But she knew better. There were very few things he cared for, and one of them had once been her. That was all in the past, however, and it would be prudent to remember that.
She had to warn him, obviously, but she made it suitably vague, going on about Teénna and her new husband. He hardly seemed to be paying attention, but she knew he understood. There had been that one moment when he had looked directly at her before returning his attention to yet another one of the mirrors, which she’d insisted be polished to a high sheen. Funny, she’d never had to worry about these things when there’d been more mice on the staff. But they hadn’t had but the one doormouse for years. Why was that? She resolved to ask the assassin — really, a mouse assassin? How ridiculous.
Later that night, as she relaxed in her room, she let her mind wander back over the years, remembering Krista as he had been in his youth, looking as splendid as he did now, if a bit less cynical, and Rüktiv when she’d first met him, and how he had swept her off his feet with his talk of adventure and romance. For the thousandth time, she wondered how she had ended up here, in this luxurious room, with the sparking crystal bottles and the sumptuous red draperies that looked black in the dim light of the jugánu worms. It was all too much. Her hands found the opium pipe without thought, and within minutes it had all begun to fade into a comfortable blur. But she could still see the feathers, blue, green and gold, in perfect array, expanding until they filled her entire field of vision. They made her smile.