Hikari opened her eyes, and promptly clenched them shut again when the bright morning light assaulted her senses. She groaned softly, enough to express her unhappiness at being awoken, but not loud enough for any of the other girls in her dormitory to hear. Complains weren't tolerated at the Centre.
Hikari pushed the soft down blanket slightly and sat up. Her mouth opened in a hugely satisfied yawn before she realised the abnormally. When was the last time she'd had soft blankets?
Still, the wondrous softness was familiar to her somehow. Like she had felt such comforts before that her entire body, right down to her fingertips, still clutching the blankets, still remembered.
The chore of waking proved harder than expected. Hikari's jostling made her very aware of a nagging pain in her temple. Her eyes still half-closed, Hikari ran her hands over her suddenly very comfortable bedding. Needless to say, she began to slip from the half-sitting position she'd managed to get to, sliding further and further into the blankets that were cool and warm, all in the right places. She snuggled down deeper into the downy pillows.
Her vaguely awake mind started to wander, trying to immerse her back into her one dreamless and wonderfully rested night. Instead, it began pushing little details of the previous day into her groggy mind.
Ham, eggs... Her mouth almost watered.
Flashes of light, carved wood... She wanted to reach out and touch it, to see if it was as smooth as it looked.
Flashes of a vivid green, of midnight blue silk. Tiny silvery white flowers?
Swirling clear amber liquid in a crystal flute, the thought of which somehow added to her headache. She groaned again.
A roughly sewn duffel bag, filled with grey garments, and something else? A small sweet bun? Honey?
Hikari flipped her sheets back in a panic. The events of the previous day came flooding back in a mad rush.
"Good morning, sleepy-head!" Miyako sang.
Hikari made no response, but her amber eyes scanned the room in a fluster, afraid that the Prince may have sent people to flog her out of bed or may even be standing in the room waiting to punish her for her impertinence.
But nobody was in the room other than Miyako, standing next to the detrimentally comfortable bed with arms akimbo and looking at the wide-eyed girl with an impatient look on her face.
"Done with your inventory check?" she asked cynically. Hikari nodded excruciatingly slowly, cautious and sending concern into her friend's eyes. Miyako's expression softened. "What's wrong?", she asked worriedly.
Hikari hopped out of bed and took one last, physical examination of the room. They were alone.
Miyako stood watching her antics with an amused smile. When Hikari at last walked back to her, biting her lip and confusion written all over her face, she finally asked, "Hikari, what are you doing?"
Hikari replied anxiously. "Miyako, you can be honest with me. Why is there no one waiting to punish me?"
Miyako blinked. "Punish you? For what?"
"For oversleeping...?" Hikari tried. They didn't really need to have a specific reason to punish her. If they really wanted to, any of her indecorous actions from the day before would have sufficed.
Miyako laughed and waved her hand at her dismissively. "Don't be silly. Half the palace isn't awake yet."
Hikari was confused. "But the sun's already out..."
Miyako's features settled into a smile. She said, "We're not in the Centre anymore, Hikari. Regular Citizens don't rise at the crack of dawn like we're used to. Honestly I'd say that's the biggest improvement we're going to get."
"But we aren't Citizens."
"Yeah, but it seems the palace 'rise and shine' isn't very much earlier for the servants. What's the point in waking up hours and hours before your Citizen? It's not like you're going to have much to do.
"But anyway, down in the servants' quarters most of us newbies were awake like an hour before the alarm went off." She grinned. "I, of course, only woke up at the second snooze."
Hikari managed a doubtful half-smile that didn't reach her eyes.
"In fact, I had specific instructions to let you sleep." Miyako paused, and raised her wrist to check her watch. "At least until now. I was just about to wake you actually."
Hikari took a moment to absorb her words, then at the dewy light filtering into the room. It had to be almost 8. "So... This is how people live outside the Centre?"
"Yep, at least, that's life here at the Aria Castle. So I've heard." Hikari looked her friend quizzically. Were her sources reliable? Miyako wasn't exactly gullible, but she did have a tendency to assume. She tended to want to believe in the bright side, while Hikari was more critical, and delved into the dark more often than she'd like to admit. In this case, Hikari thought making sure they had the right information was a far more prudent move.
They complemented each other, in a way, Hikari mused.
Miyako shrugged. "The people here are pretty chatty off working hours. I guess that's how you'll live from now on."
Hikari let her words soak through her mind. She tried to wrap her head around it. Was there really no punishment?
Hikari sank down at the edge of the flouncy bed, running her hands through the smooth softness of the comforter. She thought about what she had heard about life outside. Was it true that she was one of those so-very-lucky ones who left hardship behind at the Centre? After the adrenaline had receded, she once again became aware of the dull throbbing at her temple. She pressed the heel of her hand against it out of habit even though it wouldn't have helped in any case.
"My head hurts."
Miyako laughed. Her laugh was one of the things Hikari liked the most about Miyako. It was always so clear and genuine; Hikari knew she tried her best to mean her every smile and laugh. The sound of it always seemed to make things alright again.
Only when Miyako bent over the armoire did Hikari notice the small glass tea kettle was artfully arranged on a silver tray with two small decorated tea cups. Still mulling over her fate, Hikari hardly noticed her legs swinging a little over side of the bed, in an almost relaxed, childish way.
She watched as Miyako filled the cups with steaming liquid and and brought the cups in their saucers over. She handed one of the cups to Hikari along with a small dish balanced atop. Two or three small leaves sat in the dish. When she looked at Miyako questioningly, she ordered, "Drop those into your tea. It'll help your headache."
Hikari removed the dish and was greeted by a warm, sweet vapour. A small wedge of lemon lay at the bottom of the cup, promising flavour and fragrance. As Hikari breathed in the fresh scent, she imagined it chasing away the cobwebs in her brain. She dropped the little dark green leaves into the tea. Instantly, the tea lightened to a transparent golden, sunset colour.
Miyako sat across her at the edge of the bed with a teacup of her own. "Pretty, isn't it?" Miyako asked excitedly. When Hikari nodded, she went on, eager to share her newfound knowledge, "They taught this yesterday, during the maids' orientation session when I first arrived here. Isn't it amazing? You'll even save on sugar with naturally sweet tea like that!"
Miyako lifted the cup to her lips and in spite of the heat, took a good gulp. She must really like the tea, Hikari mused as she took a tiny sip around the steamy vapours. The lemony tartness cleared away the last of her headache. It left a light, sweet aftertaste in its wake. It really was a miraculous drink. Hikari smiled. If only they'd had this in the Centre… Hard knocks on the head during practice would have meant nothing if they could be so easily vanquished.
The girls sat in comfortable silence for a few more moments. As Hikari's head cleared, fragmented memories of the previous evening came back. She remembered signing something… Probably her contract. It wasn't difficult to remember that. She could recall the story of the late Queen's demise, as well as that of Daisuke's mother. It brought back the empty ache that Hikari often felt for the loss of her own parents. It was strange. She hadn't thought of Citizens as being capable of grief and tragedy. So far in her life, they had always seemed like a separate species altogether. It was something to think about.
A circle with twisted horns on a bared wrist… Daisuke's wrist. Yes… Daisuke was Pariah. That much she remembered as well. How terribly strange that was, yet the friendship between him and the prince was clearly one of equal standing. They did have somewhat unique circumstances behind their lack of social observance though… Maybe that was the reason.
There was something else… Did she agree to something?
The last thing she remembered was sitting across the table from the prince, tipping back a seemingly endless flow of a lovely sweet drink.
That must have been alcoholic. She mentally chided herself. She should have been more alert. She should have noticed the creeping alcohol haze before it completely overtook her.
When she was with the Prince, she felt extraordinarily at ease. More than that, he gave her an inexorable sense of security. If she wasn't careful, her guard fell completely. It was uncomfortably uncommon. In front of strangers and friends alike, Hikari usually hid behind a strong defensive wall that she had taken years to perfect.
Her thoughts were taking a curious turn. Hikari tried to bring focus back to the topic at hand. Thinking as hard as she could, safe in the knowledge that the tea would soothe any headachy relapses, she realised that a black gap followed these memories.
"Hmmm?" Miyako replied, still happily guzzling her tea. She was well into her second cup already.
"How did I get back to the room last night?"
Miyako squealed excitedly. Hikari blinked in surprise. Even after knowing Miyako for years, she was still just as easily stunned by her sudden expressions as the next person. The teacup in her hands shook dangerously with the sudden movement. Hikari quickly decided the lovely bedsheets were good as they were and didn't need another coat of honey-coloured dye. She stood up, cheerfully noting that there were no more bouts of vertigo. She returned the two cups to the tray on the armoire.
"Ah Hikari, I'm supposed to do that..."
"Doesn't matter, Miyako," Hikari said with a smile as she returned the fragile cups to their tray. With the warmth of the lemony tea inside her, she felt more relaxed. Besides, as much as her station seemed to have risen from the ashes, Hikari wanted none of the social divide on their friendship.
"So, what hap-" she began, but she was abruptly cut off as Miyako, reminded of her excitement from before, released another squeal. Her violet eyes sparkled animatedly.
"Hikari! Yesterday, the Prince walked you back! Apparently you got drunk on some wine back in the dining hall and passed out halfway!
"Such a handsome prince helped you back! You looked like such a compatible match! With you in your blue gown and him in his white shirt -" Miyako sighed dreamily at the image.
Hikari blanched. The Prince carried her back?
The news left the blood drained from her face. This was completely inappropriate. Pariah were supposed to be subservient to their masters! What on earth was Miyako going on about?
Although, Hikari knew Miyako spoke true. She had no reason to lie. Plus, if Hikari thought hard enough, she could just barely recall, through the numbing haze, a whiff of an intoxicating scent, clean with just the barest hint of spiced cologne, and something warm and solid against her cheek.
Hikari wanted to dig a hole in the ground and hide in it. Grabbing one edge of the blanket, she tugged it discretely closer to her face. Hopefully the resulting shadow would leave Miyako doubting her eyes about the growing pink in Hikari's cheeks.
The next hour passed by in a blur. Miyako announced that she had been assigned to be her personal attendant. If Hikari was appalled by the thought of having her friend act as her servant, she let it slide with naught but a sigh. Too much confusion for one day. In any case, she did think it was better that Miyako was assigned to help her. At least she wouldn't mock her inadequacies and Hikari could have a confidant anytime she needed one. And if she spent most of her time with her, at least Hikari wouldn't have to worry if she would be mistreated.
From the looks of things though, she was very happy here in the palace. She was reasonably enthusiastic about the training she was taking with the head superintendent in medicinal herbs (like the hangover tea leaves she'd known to give Hikari earlier), clothing, food et cetera. Of course, Miyako being Miyako, she didn't enjoy decorum lessons half as much. What Miyako really excelled at, however, was mechanics. Even girls were taught to dabble a little in that. Miyako had found her sharp and rapid mind immediately suited to the task.
All in all, it seemed Miyako had had a productive day. Hikari felt guilty about her wasted time. It seemed she had gotten all of the tired without any work done.
As she laced Hikari into a soft yellow dress, Miyako talked happily about a new friend she'd made in the servant quarters. From Miyako's description, Mimi was a few years their senior and was tall, beautiful and utterly wasted in working in the kitchens. However, she'd proved herself excellent with fashion apparel and was the favourite of many ladies at court.
She was also, clearly, Miyako's new idol.
Miyako's eyes lit up as she shared her experiences. Hikari nodded and responded at appropriate intervals, but her mind was otherwise occupied. Miyako had already worked out the next phase of her life. What was she to do next time she met the Prince?
Hikari hadn't noticed that she was clenching the yellow fabric across her lap until Miyako bent down beside her and unravelled the twisted cloth from her frenzied hands. She smoothed out the fabric and took her hands in hers.
"Stop worrying, Hikari. According to the other maids, Prince Takeru is a kind soul. He's never punished any of the palace help in his life. Plus, you didn't see the look on the Prince's face last night. His expression was so gentle. If I didn't know any better, I'd even say that he -" Miyako hesitated, palming her face as though she'd said something she knew she shouldn't have.
Hikari asked impatiently, "He, what? What were you going to say, Miyako?"
A knock came from the closed door. Miyako gave a feeble smile of relief and almost ran to the door. Evidently, she knew the person at the door. Hushed words were exchanged, and Hikari heard a male tenor amongst the whispers. They seemed to come to an agreement about something, or rather, the person at the door finally acceded to Miyako's request.
"Hikari, I have to leave for a little bit! See you later!"
As quickly as the words had rushed out of her mouth, she had slipped out of the door.
Hikari was left with her hand half-raised and her mouth forming the word 'wait' that now had no chance of being heard by its intended audience.
Without her confidant and friend, Hikari had nothing to do. She didn't dare to leave the room without permission, and even if she did she wouldn't know where to go. She toyed with the idea of going to find Miyako or even the prince, but almost immediately dismissed the thought, certain that she would end up lost in the twists and turns of marble halls.
She sat on the bed for a while, lost in her thoughts, watching the wind tease the lilac bed canopy through the airy window. She didn't want to waste the tea, so she had as much as she could before her stomach threatened to burst.
Bored and tapping the tiny teaspoon against the side of the cup, she had a sudden thought. She had rather enjoyed the aesthetic show when the tea transformed from a dull red to gold. She wondered how the tea would taste without the leaves.
Pouring just a little of the lukewarm liquid into her cup, she took an experimental sip.
It tasted like nothing at all. It tasted just like coloured water. Hikari lifted the top off of the pot, and became more befuddled by what clearly looked like tea dregs at the bottom. What was the point of a tea with no taste?
Hikari spent quite some time bent over the pot, her mind buzzing with curiosity. Before she knew it, the tea was cold and there came the sluggish drag in the pit of her stomach that meant she hadn't done anything productive since she'd awoken.
She also hadn't eaten. When her shrunken stomach rumbled for the third time, she remembered the honey bun from the Centre.
It had been in her satchel. Which was...
Hikari urged her lazy body into motion. She pulled open a few drawers and found them to be mostly empty, save for a few unfamiliar knick-knacks. A thorough hunt about the room found the offending satchel in fact, in plain sight, hanging from the bed post.
Hikari cursed silently before grabbing the small bag and swinging herself onto the bed in one swift motion. The luxury was getting to her already. She had to quickly figure out her purpose here. The prince's vague explanation of bodyguard duty just didn't cut it.
Next to the clean pink sheets, the duffel bag only seemed more dirty and patchy. Hikari gingerly emptied out its contents and narrowly avoided dropping the bag on the floor, remembering the cream carpet just in time. She carefully hung the bag back over the bedpost, cringing at the few specks of dirt that fell with her movement.
She flipped through the grey mass with the bittersweet taste of the slightly stale bun in her mouth. Two sets of standard issue Pariah uniform (not much more than insubstantial grey cloth), a canteen of water and the opal handle of her sword lay on the bedspread. Someone must have replaced her sword into her bag last night. As kind as the gesture was, Hikari didn't quite like the idea of someone touching her things without her knowledge.
Hikari tugged open a bedside drawer and slipped the clothes inside. She didn't really need the water anymore (her bloated stomach was testament to that), but she couldn't bear to have the canteen thrown away.
After some consideration, she left the canteen simply on the bedside table. An open test. Perhaps if she was really to have some free will here, the maids would at least leave her personal belongings alone.
All her affairs settled, Hikari was growing more and more restless by the minute. She could feel the sun's rising heat through the open window and knew it was approaching midday. The previously cosy sheets were becoming cloying and hot, and she ached for some exercise.
Maybe it wasn't such a bad idea to explore the castle just a little. She knew from her way in that her room was considerably out of sight. She peered around the edge of the door. The corridor outside was empty, and there wasn't even the ghost of a shadow in sight.
I'll just go out, stretch my legs, and run back in, she reasoned. She wouldn't be troubling anyone, and if all went well she would not even be seen. No harm done right?
She was only five steps from her door when the voice came.
Yeah so I'm just going to stop making empty promises now. Those updates never come as promptly as I say they do anyway... Sorry about that.