Society is built on the governance of those less fortunate. They help us as much as we guide them.
— Fadion da Ralain
Lily sobbed in the back of the carriage. Hot tears ran down her face as the guilt, fear, and frustration tore at her. She couldn’t find any solace in her fantasies and every remaining thought send her into a spiral of despair. She didn’t think she could finish Nirih’s dress a week early, not with her struggling to find the perfect pattern.
She could picture a dozen patterns she could use. She could throw together something and be done but it would also ruin her own feeble reputation. If it stun Society when Nirih stepped out, her mother would blame her just like everything else. Lily had to find the right one, she just wasn’t sure what to pick or how to make it perfect.
Wiping her tears only made her eyes ache. She closed them tightly and struggled to calm herself. Slowly her sobs became ragged gasps of air. Her lungs hurt but she just let the tears run out until there was nothing behind but a sore throat.
The carriage jostled and her attention was dragged back to her seat. She gripped the railing next to her and held herself still. They had left the richer district and started over cobblestones again.
In her mind, she replayed the visit with her mother. It felt like a stranger had been yelling at her, not her own blood and bone. Their relationship had always been strained after the fire. With the passing years toward Lily become a kudame, she could feel a distance but it had never been so serious or violent. It was obvious that her mother had become less of a parent and more of a investor, a demanding investor despite Lily doing her best job.
She pressed a hand to her cheek. It still stung a little from being slapped twice. Realizing they had drifted apart hurt more.
Lily stared at the far end of the carriage, her thoughts finally calm and the despair had faded with her tears. She felt broken, empty, adrift. With a sigh, she kept her body still as the carriage rolled over rough cobblestones and past crowds.
Finally, it came to a stop.
Without looking, Lily wiped her eyes one last time and winced at the soreness. She looked around for her bag but realized she didn’t bring it with her. For a long moment, she stared down at her feet, trying to push her thoughts through a feeling of deadness that had draped over her mind.
The door creaked open.
She looked as Tabithas crawled into the carriage. The older woman looked sympathetic as she sat on the opposite side. “I heard. How are you feeling?”
Lily didn’t know what to say.
Tabithas sighed and then looked at the windows. With a grunt, she lifted herself up and switched to sit next to Lily. Without another word, she lifted an arm and rested it on the back of the seat behind Lily. “I know it hurts.”
“It’s like she isn’t my mother.”
There was a pause. “I know.”
Lily wanted to look up, but couldn’t. “She slapped me.”
“She slapped me because some horse—” She paused as she realized she was about to repeat Mindil’s description. “—woman said I wasn’t doing my job. I am, I’m just having trouble. I want the dress to be perfect but nothing feels right. The edge fits Nirih’s face but not her shoulders. The swoop collar fits her face but not the curve of her shoulders. I get the buttons right for her eyes but then they don’t fit her bust. I think I have it and then things come up and I lose it. One thing after another.”
“Because of him?” There was no question who Tabithas was asking about.
“He’s part of it.” Lily sighed. “Maybe a big part… maybe not.”
Lily blushed hotly and nodded. “I know.”
Tabithas sighed and pulled Lily into a hug. “Hasan has always been in love with you. The fool is the reason the manor was burned down. I’m not surprised he came around again. If I knew he was brokering your house purchase, I would have driven you away.”
“You know who he was?”
The older woman laughed and squeezed Lily playfully. “Girl, I’ve Sarlin’s driver for close to forty years, ever since she was barely out of nappies. I was there when she started making deals for her own presentation and drove her around when your father was out on duty. I’ve probably met every Kasin, Martin, Golid, and Rabus in a hundred leagues of here. I know everyone, including your lover and his wife.”
Lily stared for a moment in shock.
“Don’t worry, I’m not going to tell anyone. What we say here, stays in here.” She gestured to the inside of the carriage.
“Thank you.” Lily gave her a little smile.
“There we go. I remember that smile.” Tabithas ran her hand along Lily’s chin. “It’s going to be okay.”
“Are you sure?”
“Of course. You are finally learning how to stand on your own. Everything right now is probably new and somewhat scary. Finding comfort in someone is…” Tabithas waved her had for a second. ”… perfectly reasonable. You are a young woman and have most of your life ahead of you. You have a chance to explore it instead of being… tossed into some marriage.”
Tabithas leaned back. “You’re going to make some beautiful decisions and horrible mistakes.”
Lily blushed hotter. “How do I know how to avoid the mistakes?”
“You don’t. You never do. I mean, rarely does fucking a married man works out, but most others are harder to tell. An enraged wife can be a terrible thing.”
Guilt stabbed her. “Mindil is becoming a friend of mine.”
“That makes it—”
“And I think I’m also falling for her,” Lily blurted.
Tabithas stopped, her mouth opening slightly.
Lily glanced up and then spoke quickly, as if the courage would slip away. “I mean she’s sweet and friendly and Djulian started screaming at me and then… and then…” Lily gasped. “Then she kissed me.”
“Well.” Tabithas sounded surprise. “Did you enjoy it?”
Lily nodded. “I did.”
“Since you didn’t see her after I pick you up, you slept with her husband after you kissed?""
Lily’s nodded turned more ragged. Tears blurred her vision. “Yes.”
“Feels like a mistake, when I say it that way. Doesn’t it?”
“Yes.” A sob rose up. “I didn’t want to but he was touching me and it felt so good just to be… to be…”
“Wanted?” Tabithas tugged Lily into a hug.
Lily sank against the older woman’s shoulder. She let out a shuddering breath. “Yes.”
“It’s nice being wanted, isn’t it?”
Lily nodded. “Yes.”
Tabithas sighed. “I can see why you have a problem. From what I heard, Mindil has a temper and Hasan is still in love with you. That is just asking for trouble. No matter how it works out, you’ll have to choose between one, the other, or neither.”
“I have to tell her.”
“Your friendship is that important?”
Lily sniffed. “Yes. I know the stories, it never ends up well if I try to keep it a secret. I have to tell her, even if it means I’ll lose a friend.”
“No, no,” laughed Tabithas, “it never works out to keep it in the dark. Sooner or later, it always comes out. I used to tell you those stories while we waited for your mother to come out of meetings, right?”
“Oh,” Tabithas said with a wry smile and shake of her head. “I love hear the gossips those days. Every little dirty detail just brought joy to my life.”
The humiliation came back. Lily ducked her head. “D-Did that change?”
Tabithas said nothing.
Lily looked up at her.
The older woman had a strange look on her face. She looked around for a moment and then sighed. “Rumors are ugly things. People jump to conclusions and it haunts the victims for years. I saw it with a… friend’s daughter about nine years ago. Hearing the whispers behind her back ruined it for me.”
She leaned back and hooked her arm on the back of the seat. “It is different when it is someone you know. You can’t laugh as hard or giggle when they turn their back on you. You have to stand there and feel their pain.”
Lily wasn’t sure, but it sounded like Tabithas was talking about her.
Tabithas leaned forward and patted Lily’s shoulder. “I think you are making a good choice by telling. Secrets are poison for the heart.”
They sat in silence for a minute. Outside of the carriage, Lily could hear people walking along the road and the creak of passing carriages.
Lily thought about Hasan’s hands, the way he touched her and the feel of his mouth against her sex. She tried to tear her thought away but it only slipped over to Mindil’s embrace. With her cheeks burning, she focused on the opposite side of the carriage and stared at the nails holding the leather in place.
“You’re thinking about him. He’s hard to resist, isn’t he?”
Lily jumped slightly and then sighed. “Yes.”
Tabithas pushed Lily into a sitting position. “Come on, then we probably should probably get to you inside.”
“Where are we?” Confused, Lily let Tabithas lead her out of the carriage. They were in the more common areas of the city. She could see lower-class people walking around; their brightly colored hair tucked underneath hats that weren’t polished black. It was a stark difference between the ever-present blondes and browns she saw in higher society; the blues, purples, and reds were as bright as their outfits.
She looked up at the store they hard parked in front of. It was an alchemy shop. The thick glass windows has warnings in three different languages. The front sidewalk was also painted a bright yellow, the store was a danger to anyone who had powerful magic.
Tabithas smiled warmly and drew her inside.
“Tabithas? What are we doing?”
“If you are going to be fucking, I want to make sure you are safe and clean. Come on, you have time to learn about life but I’d rather you not be doing it with a child on your hip.”
Humiliated that she didn’t think of it, Lily quietly followed.