ahrya? Wake up, Dahrya! Wake up!
It wasnt so much the soft voice, or its urgent tone, that woke her as the hand roughly shaking her shoulder. Go way! Go way! Even to her own ears Dahryas protest sounded no more than an indistinct mumble as she strove to remain in her dreamsdreams that, strangely, seemed to urge her to stay asleep. Something in the dreams, something not quite a voice but more like a thought projected into her mind, insisted waking now was mortally dangerous and if she stayed asleep long enough there was a good chance the danger would go away.
But the voice and the hand shaking her were too insistent. Reluctantly, with an irritable groan, she opened her eyes. The reprimand she was about to snap out died on her lips as she looked around in confusion. However did she get to be sleeping on the grass in the middle of nowhere? She didnt remember lying down, never mind going to sleep. Then Dahrya saw who had been shaking heran anxious-looking girl who seemed slightly older than her own fourteen years. Startled, she jerked into a sitting position, forcing the other girl to straighten up.
The girls lovely face, framed by curtains of shining blue-black hair, looked oddly familiar. But who was she? She was clearly someone of considerable rank, for her black travelling cloak was of heavy silk. So were the generous folds of emerald skirt that peeped from the opening of the cloak. Besides, only nobles wore their hair long.
Heedless of the possibility of staining her costly clothes, the girl lowered herself gracefully to the grassy bank. Youve been dreaming again, Dahrya. Your dreams must seem very real. You always wake up confused. I wish I could dream like that. Her tone sounded concerned as well as jealous.
Both emotions seemed to Dahrya out of all proportion. Having ones companion fall into a doze under the influence of a warm sun was hardly cause for concern, and dreams were surely too insubstantial to rouse envy. Neither could Dahrya see anything of which to be envious when she looked down at herself. A shapeless black shift of coarse homespun met her gaze. It was the type of garment a peasant woman might wear for daily work. Her cloak was of the same material, though heavier. She didnt need to put a hand to her head to know her hair was cropped short like a peasants.
That was when reality rushed back to her. But it was a reality even more confusing than the dreams from which she had just been woken, for it felt every bit as dreamlike.
She was, of course, an orphan and had been dreaming again of being a lady like her friend Mirabell, with hair cascading over her shoulders and down her back. Perhaps it wasnt a good thing, after all, for an orphan to have a friend who lived in a grand mansion and would one day be a duchess. Except in her dreams she wasnt a duchess. Her dream self was someone far more important. The trouble was when she woke up she could never remember what that was. All she ever recalled were the unicornsunicorns nothing like the vicious brutes everyone said they were. The unicorns in her dreams were gentle, almost wraithlike creatures that trusted and looked up to her as they would their leader. Indeed, they seemed to near-worship her. The affection such trust instilled in her was so intense it hurt, and continued to hurt on waking. Now she thought about it, she couldnt remember a time when she hadnt dreamed of unicorns.
Hey, Dahrya, are you all right? Youre even dreamier than usual. Increasing concern furrowed Mirabells brow. Her large grey eyes, slanted like a cats, looked positively worried. Dahrya recalled, as she gazed into them in bewilderment, that most Lazaronians had black eyes. Grey eyes were rare and indicated their owner to be descended from the silver-eyed Goddess Lazaria, though she understood not all such descendants had grey eyes.
Mirabell now placed a hand on Dahryas shoulder. You cant cope with reality if you insist on living in a dream world. You really must snap out of it, especially if you want to be a ladys maid. My mother is a reasonable woman, but she can hardly be expected to tolerate a servant who daydreams her working hours away. The lecture, though gentle, sounded as if coming from someone much older than the speaker. But at least it made sense of anxiety that had until then seemed illogical.
Dahrya swallowed her yearning to be back in her dreams with the unicorns and mentally gave herself a good shake. Mirabell was right, she ruefully chided herself.
With a merry laugh that for some reason sounded more than a trifle forced, Mirabell leapt up, grabbed Dahryas hand and pulled her to her feet. Remember, today is a really exciting one for you. Youre finally free of the orphanage and youre about to start an apprenticeship as ladys maid to a future Duchess of Mirakklon. Thats a great honour for an orphan girl.
Dahrya blinked in surprise that Mirabell’s voice sounded as if she thought Dahrya needed persuading about being honoured, and that persuading her was the most important thing in the world at that moment. She blinked again and shook her head to rid herself of such a stupid notion. Mirabell was just concerned her mother might change her mind about employing Dahrya. And probably with good reason. It was sheer idiocy to focus so intensely on her dreams that they seemed more authentic than reality.
She now remembered she had just been released from the orphanage and was on her way to Mirakklon Manor. They had stopped for lunch (she now recalled watching the servants set it out) and she must have fallen asleep while they cleared everything away. Only it all seemed even less like reality than her unicorn-filled dreams. That, she supposed, was because orphanages seldom trained girls for anything higher than a job as a scullery maid, or similar lowly positions. Therefore, an orphan girl wouldnt normally stand a chance of becoming a ladys maid, never mind having the lady she served as a friend. She was indeed an extremely lucky girl. Strange that she didnt feel especially lucky!
She gave Mirabell a smile, aware that it was shaky and betrayed her uncertainty, as she allowed herself to be led back to the carriage waiting on the other side of a belt of trees. Once settled inside, however, her sense of unreality started fading, so that by the time Mirakklon Manor came into view she was feeling nothing but happy anticipation. She knew and loved the manor well, for hadnt Mirabell invited her there often enough during their unusual friendship? She had even been a frequent guest in the huge dining room! Of course, that would all have to stop, she wistfully told herself. The Duke and Duchess could hardly entertain one of their own servants.
And such proved to be the case. All the same, only two things stopped Dahrya being happier than she could remember. First was the way the dreams about unicorns continued, with her yearning to stay inside those dreams strengthening. It was almost as if she wanted to be a unicorn! But why would she want to belong to a species that had nearly been wiped out by hunters? Why would any human want to become an animal, no matter how noble the species?
Almost as unsettling was the suspicion with which Mirabells sister Ilsamere at first viewed her. On the day following Dahryas arrival, Ilsamere sought her out in Mirabells dressing room, where Dahrya sat rehemming one of Mirabells gowns. As she sewed she was trying to figure out why her dreams the previous night had been filled with flames, and Ilsameres sudden entrance made her start.
A puzzled frown creased Ilsameres forehead. She wasted no time in greetings or apologies for startling Dahyra. I dont know who you really are, but theres something wrong about you. I feel I should know what it is, but Ive racked my brains and still cant figure it out. Ive never heard your surname for a start. Dynhydralon doesnt make sense, anyway, because there is nowhere called Hydralon, except a tall rock in the middle of the Great Albinsea, also called the Finger of the Great Albinsea. Even your given name makes no sense. Ill bet you dont know what it means.
Dahrya shook her head, feeling as puzzled as Ilsamere looked. What could the meaning of her name possibly have to do with Ilsameres odd, unfounded feelings about her? No, my lady. Do you know?
Ilsameres scrutiny of Dahryas face seemed to intensify. For a long moment Dahrya thought she was about to be scolded for being impertinent. But Ilsamere simply answered her question. Like dynmeaning of, from or out ofDahrya comes from the old Lazaronian language and has something to do with weeping. Its a strange mother who would give her daughter such a name. It made me so curious I rode to the orphanage this morning to look you up on their records. But the building was burned down in the night. Apparently by the time help arrived it was too late: the whole interior was gutted. I was told there were no survivors. Frankly, it spanks of sorcery to meevil sorcery at that. Yet I know you couldnt be responsible. As a sorceress myself, I would recognise a kindred spirit, evil or otherwise.
Shocked, Dahrya had pricked herself with her needle. Quickly, so it wouldnt stain the gown, she sucked away the spot of blood that welled up. No wonder her dreams the previous night had been filled with flames as well as unicorns! But, sorry as she was for the orphans and staff, it seemed she had been fond of none, for she could recall no one for whom she should be particularly grieving. Im so sorry about the orphanage, my lady.
“So am I. It was a good one, staffed by caring people. My father made sure of that.”
Dahrya hardly heard the terse words. She took a deep breath. Well, here goes; might as well have it out with her. And Im sorry you dislike me. Have I done something to offend you? She spoke with lowered voice and downcast eyes as the Duchess had insisted on her arrival.
She could almost feel the other girls surprise. Oh, youve done nothing to offend me or make me dislike you. I wish I did dislike you. That would at least explain my feelings. Its just that I think I feel youre well, bad for my sister. Certainly since she met you shes had little time for me, and as small children we were like twins.
It was Dahryas turn to be surprisedsurprised enough to forget the servility required of a servant and raise her head to stare at Ilsamere. So, although Ilsamere didnt sound jealousin fact she sounded, and looked, no more than puzzled and worriedshe must be jealous. How could this privileged, this amazingly clever and beautiful girl be jealous of someone like Dahrya? Lady Ilsamere, I wouldnt harm my Lady Mirabell for all the riches in Lazaronia.
Before Ilsamere could reply, a light step sounded at the door. Discussing me with my servant behind my back, Ilsamere?
Dahrya spoke up before Ilsamere could answer; the last thing she wanted was to be responsible for a quarrel between the sisters. She was careful to be formal, as Mirabell and the Duchess required her to be in the presence of others; she even lowered her gaze. No, my lady. The Lady Ilsamere just seems to think Im bad for you.
Mirabell laughed. Thats only because she doesnt yet have her own ladys maid. Your turn will come, Ilsamere. Youve only another year to wait. But in the meantime please dont try stealing mine. Shes too precious for me to want to lose her.
There was no rancour in Mirabells voice, but a quick glance at Ilsamere showed Dahrya that she flushed and pursed her lips, making her look much the older of the two sisters. However, she said nothing, merely sweeping from the room with a disapproving swirl of her skirt that would have done justice to the strictest orphanage matron. Mirabell watched her go with a smile that was more a smirk, and which Dahrya found vaguely unpleasant, before also leaving the room.
Dahrya thoughtfully sucked her pricked thumb again. The deaths of all those who had been a family to her made her heart heavy, especially since they had died so horribly. But surely she should be more upset? Why couldnt she cry for her fellow orphans and those who had taken the place of her parents? The trouble was that all her memory could call up was a few blurry faces. She had, she now realised, been far too wrapped up in her friendship with Mirabell to bother with other friendships. How could she have been so selfish, so heartless? Now it was too late.
She confided her feelings to Mirabell that night as she pulled the brush through Mirabells hair. Mirabell looked instantly upset.
Dahrya, you have no reason to grieve for anyone from that place. I suspect they didnt treat you at all kindly. Dont you remember how we met? Because my family built the orphanage and was largely responsible for its upkeep, my father visited it occasionally to make sure his money went where it should. For some reason he took me along that day, and I wandered off looking for someone to play with. She twisted on her stool to reach up a hand and place it on Dahryas shoulder. You were about to get a beating from at least three girls bigger than you, while others watched, egging them on. And the staff didnt seem to care. There wasnt one of them around.
Dahrya swallowed as memories flooded back. But they still felt as unreal as dreams. She must, she realised in surprise, have been shockingly unhappy to have been able to close her mind so quickly and so successfully to her life at the orphanage. But at least she now remembered enough to let go of her burden of guilt.
Mirabell was looking anxiously up at her. Better now?
Dahrya swallowed the lump that rose in her throat and nodded, tears of relief and joy pricking her eyes. I dont deserve a friend like you.
The anxiety in Mirabells eyes died and she laughed. Now thats nonsense. You mustnt think like that. She gave Dahryas shoulder a long, slow squeeze before turning back to the mirror. Promise me youll stop thinking like that.
Dahrya smiled at her in the mirror and returned to drawing the brush through the silky black hair. What a wonderful friend Mirabell was! I promise.
For the first time in many years Dahrya had a dreamless sleep that night. Even when, over the years, the dreams returned, it was a while before they started leaving her exhausted with yearning to be back in them. She settled into a contented routine at Mirakklon Manor and even made friends with some of the other servants.
Her life started collapsing shortly after the death of the new young King of Lazaronia, Lazarone III, before he was even crowned. It was a death that should never have occurred. The Kings twin brother Ignarius had challenged him to a final bareback horse race, a popular sport at which they both excelled but which was deemed too dangerous for a reigning sovereign. However, everyone present at the race insisted the animal ridden by the King wasnt a horse but a unicorn, which threw him and then savaged him to death with both horn and hooves. Certainly it was a unicorn stallion that Ignarius subsequently had his archers kill. He then claimed he was Lazarone and that it was Ignarius who died, but couldnt convince Queen Esmeralda, now regent until her five-year-old daughter Esmé came of age. Dahrya had heard that Ignarius bewitched Lazarone so the King didnt know it was a unicorn he mounted. The unicorn must definitely have been hexed to have accepted any human on its back.
There were now also whispers that this attempt to steal the throne of Lazaronia wasnt Ignariuss first. The Piksenvolk, tiny humans sometimes called mountain pixies because they lived under the mountains, claimed that, two thousand years before, he had been twin brother to Lazarone I, known as the Godking, and had murdered his brother in a fit of jealousy. Butexcept perhaps for the murder, which was historical factthat story was plainly nonsense. Surely even the greatest sorcerer couldnt reincarnate himself? Then there was the curious lack of births in Lazaronia. Princess Esmé was the only child born in a full generation. Dahrya had heard that Ignarius, trying to place a spell of infertility on the King and Queen, had bungled and hexed the whole land.
She was shocked to find her grief on the Kings death was more for the unicorn than the much-loved young king. But then, although she had seen King Lazarone, she had never met him. Mind you, neither had she met a unicorn.
She was still grappling with her feelings when the Duke and Duchess of Mirakklon, coming home after visiting friends, were caught in a brief but savage localised storm and their carriage was struck by lightning. The horses were unharmed, but the carriage was destroyed and both the Duke and Duchess were killed. Dahryas grief was equal to that of any of the servants, who had all loved both the Duke and the Duchess.
Ilsamere, who only the day before had left Mirakklon Manor to become tutor to Princess EsmÉ at Castle Lazarone, returned for the funeral. As soon as her sister departed again, Mirabell summoned Dahrya to the room that had been the Dukes study. Behind the huge, masculine desk, and with large leather-bound volumes in glass-fronted shelves at her back, she looked distinctly out of place. Dahrya, swiftly examining her face, found it hard to believe she had done any mourning, even in private.
Mirabell didnt invite Dahrya to sit as she normally did but came straight to the point. Dahrya, you are now ladys maid to the Duchess of Mirakklon. I have retired my mothers maid. Shes far too old-fashioned for my taste anyway. That means you get a wage rise. It also means you must behave formally to me, even in private, because when I marry my husband will frown upon my having a close friendship with a servant. So from right now you will address me as ‘my lady or ‘your grace at all times.
Dahrya blinked in surprise. Many men had come courting Mirabell but none had seemed to interest her. You are getting marriedwith your parents hardly cold in their graves? The censure was out before she could help herself.
Two red spots stained Mirabells cheeks. Dahrya, you are no longer speaking to the Duchesss daughter but the Duchess herselfa ruling duchess, not just a dukes wife like my mother. Question anything I do and I will be obliged to instantly dismiss you. I would hate to do that. I value your services very highly.
Dahrya bit her lip. How could becoming a duchess have so changed Mirabell? Not that their friendship had been as close lately as it once was.
But Mirabell was still talking. Since Ive no objections to your knowingthough I would ask you to keep it to yourself on pain of dismissalIm not getting married in the near future but have chosen a husband. There is, of course, only one man in the whole of Lazaronia worthy of the hand of the Duchess of Mirakklon: Prince Ignarius.
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