CHAPTER 2

Marlene was shown into a large, luxuriously furnished cabin a few moments after takeoff. Seven handmaidens undressed her reverentially. They were female monks from Freid's oldest monasteries, requested by her husband to give up their monastic lives to care for the new Duchess, who held the title of the Guardian of the Faith, along with her husband. The women were dark-eyed and dark-skinned, completely bald, but quiet and graceful. They introduced themselves to her: Sala, Chielo, Fareen, Sinuo, Kidetsu, Rigzin and Desket.

For the first time in hours, Marlene looked up with interest. The nuns were completely alien to her; she had never seen their like before, though she had read about Freidan female monks in her history lessons at the palace. They lived a life of utter seclusion, and seldom stepped outside their monasteries, believing the outside world to be a polluting influence for the spiritual seeker. Nuns were no mere token presences either. Each monastery had a circle of the Holies; the decision-making body that administered the business of the Faith. Half of them were mandatorily women; since women were considered the embodiment of the feminine principle, which was essential for male monks to assimilate, androgyny being considered the perfect gender for attainting enlightenment, knowledge of the male and female energies was vital to understanding the Universe, which the Freidans considered their god. Marlene felt awed, despite her numbness, that she was in the presence of women who were capable of such eminence. In Asturia, women were mainly ornamental, something her independent-minded sister Eries fiercely resented.

"Thank you", she whispered, when the women were finished dressing her in a soft cotton robe and combing out her hair. They were the first words she had spoken of her own volition since morning. The vows didn't count. The nuns folded their hands and inclined their heads slightly. After they left, Marlene thought she would curl up on the bed, but she found she couldn't relax enough to lie down. It felt as if she must sit on the edge of the bed, keeping a sharp lookout for someone would come bursting through the door, brandishing a bloody bed sheet and demanding her execution. Maybe she would have felt a lot better after a fight – a bit of yelling and screaming and flailing limbs would ease the tension in her body. Sitting in a miasma of unconfirmed fear was the worst. Compared to that, someone guessing her crime would be a welcome release.

Getting up slowly, the feel of the robe was strange to her. She never wore cotton much; in Asturia it was considered the poor man's cloth. Here, she noticed the nuns, her Duke, and his retainers, all wore richly embroidered robes of cotton, even the shirts and leggings were cotton. The Duke's turban was cotton. She wore nothing underneath the robe, so that was probably the source of her discomfort. In Asturia, undergarments were almost an obsession, and she had a matching set for each dress in her vast wardrobe. She had brought her trousseau full of silk gowns with her, but the Duke seemed not to have paid heed to that and commanded that she be dressed in a Freidan fashion. Thankfully it helped – the leviship being unventilated from outside air, it was quite stuffy, and her robe was airy and loose. She walked to a round window in her cabin and looked out. They were flying over Fanelia now. Fanelia sat in a fertile bowl of flat land, ringed on all sides by mountains. It was beautiful, she remembered, having visited it many years ago, when there was a possibility of her getting engaged to Fanelia's heir, Prince Folken.

Allen had then been her personal bodyguard, and she had spent the whole visit oblivious of Folken. Allen was newly inducted into the Knight Caeli, having stunned everyone with his talent, especially the King, who, in a fit of being blinded by admiration for Allen's fine swordsmanship, forgot to consider that the constant company of an extraordinarily handsome young man could be dangerous for his daughter. His lack of foresight was a folly he was yet to discover. Naturally, Marlene couldn't help but fall in love with Allen. At last, someone her own age, who she could talk to, who let her do things she ordinarily couldn't, like swimming in the bay, or climbing trees, while he stood guard, and deflected inquiries with a serious , "The Princess is attending to her toilet". The king worried she may have a stomach infection, and was quite puzzled as to why Marlene wouldn't let a doctor see her. Allen and she laughed together whenever they could. Once, they snuck out to the Schezar estate, (the wonderful thing was that no one ever suspected them of mischief, everyone thought she'd be fine as long as she had her bodyguard with her) which he had inherited after his instatement as a Knight, and spent a whole day doing as they pleased. It was more joy than she could handle, having been a lonely child after her mother's death – her sisters were far too young for her – and her wilfulness a disguise for her insecurity. Allen made her happy.

The sight of Fanelia aroused far too many happy memories. A wall broke. Marlene made a sound like an injured animal, and began to cry. The sun was now below the horizon, and the last blaze of light from the window seemed to shatter into a million shards of gold through her tears. Stumbling back to the bed, she threw herself down, wishing she could just die. Before she knew it, exhaustion overtook her and she fell asleep.

She awoke suddenly, startled out of sleep by something. Sitting up, she looked warily towards the cabin door. The room was dark, but someone stood at the door.

"We are half an hour from Freid. I'll send your ladies over to dress you", the Duke said. He carried a branch of candles which lit up his bearded face in jagged swathes. He turned to go, setting the candles down on a dresser. "I hope you are well-rested, my lady. There are many more hours of ceremonies awaiting us at home, and it will take some patience to go through them all. I can send over some lime juice sweetened with honey, if you like. I find it helps." Then he was gone, leaving the door half-closed behind him.

Marlene let out a long breath she hadn't known she was holding. Her face felt sticky with the tears, and her mouth was dry. "Home", he'd said. She didn't have a home. This man, this tall bearded stranger, how could he be her husband? She barely knew him, not even his first name. Everyone just called him Duke Freid, and she also labelled him in her mind as 'Duke Freid', like one of Millerna's botanical specimens. She sat vacantly on the bed for a while, till her seven dignified handmaidens came in. They brought the lime juice Duke Freid had recommended, she noticed, along with armfuls of clothes.

She was helped into a pale orange sarong wrapped about her waist, which shimmered softly with all the heavy golden embroidery in it. On her torso she wore a delicately shaped white silk blouse, tucked into the sarong. The join between blouse and sarong was hidden under a heavy belt of gold, from which hung little loops of gemstones. Her arms were bare, but bedecked with heavy gold bangles and arm-bands of gold above her elbow. A double strand of crystal strings went over her left shoulder. The top half of her blouse was covered with a narrow panel of cloth the same colour as the sarong, but this was not only embroidered with gold thread, but also studded with crystals. Marlene was curious to look despite herself, but it was considered inauspicious for bride to admire her own beauty before her husband could. Her feet were bare, but her handmaidens clasped little anklets of crystal around her ankles. She was scared to walk, terrified the strands would break if she moved too fast, but Sala gently reassured her. Marlene felt the clothes were far too light and easy to move in: important dresses were always uncomfortable, and she felt as if she ought to wear something difficult to breathe in or hard to walk in, so that she could do a bit of penance for her crimes. But everything seemed to conspire against her self-pity.

The nuns were quick and efficient. Within a few minutes she was ready, only her long blond hair remained to be made. Sala combed it slowly, easing out the knots, while Rigzin made her close her eyes so she could dab her face clean with some rosewater. If they noticed the tear tracks and the sticky cheeks, they didn't comment. Someone else was rubbing perfume on her wrists. Marlene opened her eyes when Fareen asked her if she wanted to wear slippers or go barefoot. Marlene stared at her in astonishment. "Why, is there a choice? Am I not supposed to wear slippers? I can't go barefoot like a beggar, can I?" Fareen looked at her silently. With a slight shock she realised that all her seven handmaidens, for all their regal poise, went barefoot themselves.

"In Freid, your highness, there is pride, not shame, in leaving one's feet unshod. It signifies acceptance and humility. And that one has nothing to hide, not even from the very dust of the wayside." At that moment, Marlene could have sworn Fareen looked into her soul, and knew her guilt. She hastily looked away. After that, of course, there was no question of her wearing slippers.