Anala stepped out of her bathroom draped in nothing but a towel. Her dark hair clung wetly to her skull and shoulders, and she was late for the banquet. Not that it mattered. Hardly anyone would arrive on time, especially not nobles or courtiers. Ranking officers were usually the first ones there.
She sighed and rummaged through her closet. She hated court functions. She went only if required, usually dragged by Aro. But at least I ken the food will be good. Reaching into the back of her closet she found her one court peplos. Formal uniform was required at military banquets, but this banquet had a dual purpose – it was celebratory of Midwinter as well. As good an excuse as any ta wear this ancient rag, she thought as she tossed it on the bed. I’ll not ever have another like it, she mused, fingering the precious Nucalif embroidery. Hastily she dried herself and wrapped her hair in her towel. On cue with her nudity, there was a knock on the door.
“Who is it?” she called.
“It’s me,” Aro’s voice responded. “You decent?”
“Innae moment, ken,” she said as she stepped back into the bathroom. A quick rub of deodorant, dash back to bed, peplos over head and pulled down. “Come in!”
Aro stepped through her door, dressed in his court clothing, which was, honestly, not that different from his formal uniform. Unlike the male courtiers, he wore a shirt and jacket with his dress fustanella. Seeing her hair in a towel, he frowned. “You’re not ready.”
She shrugged and in one fluid motion flipped the towel off her head and tied her hair tightly back in its customary club.
“Now I am,” she said, passing Aro as she went out the door.
He shook his head and followed, closing the door behind them.
The walk to the banquet hall was a long one, giving Anala a chance to collect her thoughts. Her meeting with her aunt had troubled her; as a consequence she’d spent most of her bathing staring into space, until the water turned cold.
Trouble was, she could see no solution to the problem―no solution she could implement, at any rate. She was tied to her family, small it may be, and therefore limited in what she could do. It was obvious Athering needed a revolution. Her aunt was not the only victim of Zanny’s cruelty, not by far. Zardria would be far worse, she knew, when the empreena took the Sceptre next year.
She would help when the time came. She just didn’t know how much she could do, which made her feel helpless―a feeling she loathed.
“Same arrangement as usual?” Aro’s question cut through her musings.
She nodded. “Always.”
“You’ll not improve your accent if you never―”
“―speak,” she finished. “I’m not of a mind ta be improving it, Aro.” They were at a level of familiarity where she could play out their conversations in her mind before they had them.
He shrugged. They had argued this many times before. Neither of them had any more investment in it.
They reached the banquet hall doors, giant heavy things, carved from deathtree, depicting a scene whose history no one knew any more. They’d been there since the Second Age, and how they’d been lifted into the castle and into place was anyone’s guess.
Aro and Anala paused outside the doors. This’d be it, Anala, she thought. Courage. And dinnae go losing yer temper. It wouldnae do.
She felt a hand on the nape of her neck and looked at Aro quizzically. He moved his hand away hastily.
“Your hair is still wet,” he said by way of an answer.
She nodded, but as he reached for the door, she noticed his hand was dry.
Anala had been right. She and Aro were among the first to arrive, despite the fact the banquet had been due to begin an hour earlier. She shook her head incredulously and headed to her designated table. She had no desire to mingle.
Scanning the hall for who was there, she was surprised to note Bellica Yarrow hadn’t arrived yet. Strange. Usually she’d be the first here.
She took her seat on a klina and Aro followed, taking a seat beside her. She gestured, saying he could mingle if he wanted to. He shook his head and stayed next to her.
This was another of their constant conversations.
The doors opened and heads turned; on seeing it was Ghia deHelene, most turned back to their business. Anala caught her eye and waved her over.
Ghia was one of the few people Anala felt comfortable speaking to―somehow Anala knew that Ghia had never thought less of her because of her accent. “I woulda thought ye mother’d be here tonight, Healer,” she said as the girl approached them.
Ghia shrugged. “She hates court, and says I’ll have to deal with it when I’m in her place, so better I get used to it now.” She rolled her eyes. “How fares your Midwinter, Bellica, Major?” she said, abruptly changing the subject.
“Uneventful,” the two of them answered in unison. “As usual,” Aro continued.
Ghia smiled. “Well, that’s a Midwinter I wish for. Count your blessings.”
“We do,” Anala said.
Ghia nodded and turned to go. Anala caught her arm, and the healer turned back to them. “Yes?”
Anala dropped her voice. “Me aunt sends her thanks for yer gift,” she said. Ghia nodded. “As do I,” she continued. She let go of Ghia’s arm and sat back.
“Happy Midwinter, Bellica, Major,” Ghia said by way of farewell, before turning to find her table.
Aro raised his eyebrows at Anala. When she said nothing, he shrugged and dropped it.
Noticing a servant, Anala signalled the girl over. “Sangria?” Aro asked. She nodded. There was no need for him to ask her anymore, just as she didn’t need to ask what his order would be―nonalcoholic shandygaff. It was simply a formality.
He gave the girl their drink order and they sat back to wait. The banquet wouldn’t begin till the empress and empreena arrived. They had a while.