John’s confidence in the carriage Lady Dodd sent for us is not misplaced. Ghostly fire, as blue as the deepest ice, forms the wheels and the guiding lantern for the grizzly driver. A redwood chassis swarming with gold filigree simply floats over the snowy grounds, smoothly rising and dipping over snow banks instead of melting them. Truly, a magical marvel to behold and here I am enjoying a brisk ride on its mauve velvet seats. However, after nearly two hours passing through the snowy plains, my city, and the mountain tunnels, this experience will soon finally end. When it does though, I’ll be seated to a fancy dinner with friends, old and new. It is a far cry, wonderfully so, from how I usually spend the end of a year. Terrible nights could be passed with books, while better ones let me stand on my balcony; both, ever lacking in company. However, I can't say that I'm fully appreciating this carriage. It's hard not to wring my hands uselessly, to not worry so much about tonight.
“Tell me about Lady Dodd.” I almost demand, trying to stay in control.
“Another review? Sure.” John says casually from the other side of the carriage, paying no mind to my authoritative tone.
I've been straining to figure out if this gesture of Lady Dodd’s has some hidden meaning. Intimidation? A display of wealth? Either or both could be signs of the century-old relationship between my lands and hers deteriorating. The trade we conduct allows my realm to remember that there is a world larger than their beds out there and it cannot be ignored. Separate from that but no less worrisome is that this the first time John and I have been together in the same place in weeks. However, instead of seeing if winter and isolation have taken their toll on him or catching up, we’ve spent our time discussing dinner manners and our hostess.
“Well? Speak.” Relaxing feels impossible and I hate it. John is my friend, not an underling. Much as I chide myself internally for addressing him as if he were the latter, the man sitting across from me sounds more offended by how I beckoned him.
“Please don’t stick your foot out and wiggle it at me, Palamina,” He almost sounds disgusted, “or any other part of your body- Hey. Polly got you first from Derutcurts, right?” So that’s the driver’s name. She only told me that she came from the Dodd estate. “Couldn’t you have changed before picking me up?”
I frown, not that he can see me. John’s human sensibilities haven’t gone disregarded. I’ve been slowly rifling through my wardrobe via portal and behind conjured walls of shadows long before arriving at John’s doorstep. Does he believe that I’m nude in here because I only popped my seemingly severed head out through the darkness to greet him? Hardly. I was just trying on my blue dress for the tenth time before rotating back to the pink one and then the white one and then starting my tiresome deliberation all over again.
“I wanted to hear you talk about the lady of the house first. Clothes are a big part of a first impression. While the set that she loaned you tells me something, it doesn’t tell me everything.” And what a ghastly arrangement of cloth it is.
My now grumbling friend has recently been given, or perhaps loaned, some things that remind me of all I’ve read concerning human nobility from the warmer parts of the north. Reality matches the drawings from those pages quite well, including a hat, doublet, cloak, tights, and pointed shoes. It's an absurd set since everything worn on top has been puffed up like a full waterskin while the bottom half seems tight as a drum. The contrast leaves me with a very distinct mental image. Sitting across from me is a man that has been swallowed by a purple silk and linen frog.
“Well we’ve talked up and down and left and right and alllll around about what we know about Charlotte a couple of times already.” John answers, using our hostess’ given name not for the first time during our carriage ride. He spouts it out so casually that I have to convince myself that it’s because of a lack of manners and not something else. But that’s something to think about on another day. I mustn't add a third subject to panic about tonight.
“But we haven’t discussed what clothes she might find offensive.” A tad specific, I admit. John has been passing any little details he knows about Lady Dodd to me since the start of this ride. Each one ensures that I’m less likely to commit some unintended slight against our hostess and jeopardize the upcoming discussions.
“Only saw it happen once but she doesn't mind being upstaged. But Charlotte’s whos, whens, wheres, whys and hows about getting a copy of what you're wearing might wear you out.” Then John is implying that everything is permitted.
“Thank you, John. I've finally picked something out.” Finally, a little peace of mind for tonight.
Feet. You two okay yet? Well, they’re better than a while ago at least now that we’re out of Palamina’s realm. Legs, quit being bloated, share more blood with feet. I'd like to be able to walk on my own later. Moving on.
Charlotte Charlotte Charlotte. Lady Charlottey Charlottedodd McDoddington, the fifth generation head of the house of Dodd. That’s assuming that her ancestral homeland would even accept her one hundred and fifty year absence, monsterness and still alive-ishness. The menu she’d bring with her would probably get her exiled even if everything above were ignored though.
“How do I look?”
Gods above. Her kitchen is probably still entirely headache-inducingly and pushing-blood-upwardly demonic. Kind of like this not-fast-enough carriage ride as it went through Palamina’s realm.
“Pink is a perfectly non-threatening colour at first glance, is it not?”
Glad I saved the topic of Charlotte for this instead of writing it all out. I didn't want Palamina or me scrambling for a topic during our ride or worse, sitting in silence and just listening to the sound of brain’s nonstop aaaa-ing. I've had enough of that already, thank you very much (but the screams of disbelief just keep on coming, godsdamnit). Guess there's always that chat on raising kids that we meant to have last month but that doesn’t sound very relaxing or relevant. Plus there's always the chance of stumbling into topics like love, eternity, love that could last an eternity, and how I'll be dead in twenty years from old age.
“What about these chains and rings that I'll gift Lady Dodd?”
Gods, I hope none of that comes up tonight. I’m not prepared even after a month of trying to figure out what I should argue for. The only point I’m sure of is that it’ll be better if I start that talk myself instead of someone else (thinking about YOU, Charlotte) planting that worry in her head and then suggesting that I go zombie.
“They're copies of the ones I’m wearing now but as you implied, she is likely to be pleased about acquiring her own.”
I’m going to die long before the oldest monster in the Northwest Reaches, whoever that is. That was a point that I didn't mention to Palamina a month ago, when she asked what was keeping me from making a family with a monster. I didn’t want- still DON’T want- her worrying to my face about it. And if the thought’s crossed her mind already? Well, she hasn’t mentioned anything about wrinkles, greying hair, failing health, all those wonderful things. Gods, when was the last time anyone here watched a monster die of old age? When was the last time anyone here watched a human die of old age?
I could be researched, cured maybe. Palamina’s said so. Which is the same as asking me to be prodded, poked, stabbed, sliced, pricked jabbed bled torncutripped and so on and so forth. Or maybe less that and more being fed bigger and bigger amounts of demonic energy every day in some half-baked attempt to turn me. Either way, I’m not ready to face that again even if Palamina offers to hold my hand during the whole thing.
The question that needs to be answered is if I care enough about the Northwest Reaches and its people to let myself be tortured and turned. Wow, what a super terrible description. Wish I could get another opinion besides Palamina’s but my longtime companion upstairs is still buzzing in disbelief, Malida’s holed up for the winter, and Sari is always in too much of a hurry. Maybe Charlotte? Or her husband?
There’s my cue to stop thinking and finally address the lilim who’s been shouting at me. “Sorry, I was just trying to see what's outside.” Half true. I've been staring blankly out the window at the torches that reveal very little along the road. In this probably final stretch before Charlotte’s place, I should give the ‘great lilim leader’ that review of our hostess she asked for- Gods above, look at that dress and that woman.
“Finally. You worry me you know.” Sighs the not wight but white (and pink) lady.
Okay, how about this? Forget Charlotte, forget brain, forget how he’d not want me to compliment Palamina too hard but still compliment her to maintain her protection of me. Forget. Everything. I challenge myself to not wonder and wander about why she looks this way and just think about how fantastic she looks, period. Starting nnnnnow.
Biggest stand outs are wings and tail, very visibly white, even in this bizarre combo of will-o’-wispy firelight inside, passing normal torches outside and nighttime darkness. Guess the monster bits means this shining pink floor touching tube with holes Palamina’s squeezed into is backless along with armless. Maybe there’s even a small amount of assless given the tail scratching the carriage’s floor now. Wait, those aren't holes on the front of her dress. There’s- what's the word- sheer? Opaque? Sheer. Maybe. Forget it. There’s these two spots where the cloth looks thinner, a diamond around her bellybutton and everything from the top of her neck to the armpits. Are those tattoos or stitching in those pink-white parts?
“This is a good look for you.” When was the last time I saw a monster get fancy and not just get more naked than they already were? “Especially your hair.” Gods, why’d I sound so flat there? I’m not lying. “ESPECIALLY your hair.” It's fluffy, it's wavy, it's got stray locks around her suddenly smiling face, and there's this looooong winding ponytail trailing down to the lap. Then there's her black tiara-ish horns with gold chains strung up around them, and a ring thing with a red gem sitting on the tips, and pointy ears that- oh, no earrings. Anyway, Palamina’s new head reminds me of a lake with gold at the bottom and a river. Better looking than a simple curtain. My only question is, “Not dying everything your usual pink tonight?”
“I thought that making my heritage clear would give me an edge at the table,” Palamina states with a quiet giggle and a dramatic toss of her white locks. “Plus there would be entirely too much pink if I did.” Gods above. Getting her to smile with a nice word or two is no problem but do I care about her enough to let myself get strapped to a table? Godsdamnit, I just worried again.
I need to save this for another night, we’re almost at Charlotte’s. In those three weeks under her roof, I remember never going out towards the cove in the back or farther than the courtyard out front. I also recall the stonework being arranged in a circle, and a glance outside here in the present shows me that’s exactly how the roadside torches are spreading out now.
So in response to Palamina’s little colour joke, I only bark a single loud, “HA!” It’s just as much laughter as it is me trying not to laugh away the future. Ha ha ha! HA HA HA! Ugh. Or lack thereof. Or it could just be really really really awful.
Deep breathes now.
The carriage makes a wide turn, following the curve of the torches closely. Old memories of flying over the Dodd estate come forward, of yearly visits to keep my maps up to date. This circle will end halfway, stopping in front of the enormous home of Lady Charlotte Dodd. A shame that it can't be seen tonight, not with clouds blocking the moon. I was looking forward to finally having a ground level view.
“Ready or not, here we are.” John mutters. Truer words have never been said. They sober me immediately and John’s compliments, somehow so easily given this time, are tucked away inside to keep me warm some other night.
We wait quietly, feeling the carriage slow down and stop. Muffled rumbling from outside draws our attention and we see yellow light widening before us, leading our eyes up smooth slanted stone and towards heavy yawning doors. The light from within the mansion obscures two figures standing in the giant archway. One must be my realm’s connection to the ocean and the other her husband, both casting long shadows over their carriage, or rather over me.
I’ve seen six horses and the three wagons behind them line up side-by-side and trot comfortably through that entrance and its matching exit before. It was one of the very few land caravans from the south that dared to struggle their way up the world to trade, but not with my realm. Such effort speaks volumes about the amount of foreign goods that flow towards Lady Charlotte Dodd. Goods that for the most part only transfer to other ships anchored in or docked at the giant horseshoe-like cove. There are so many plans, technologies, and works of art that I still haven't managed to negotiate for. Maybe I'll never manage to get them after tonight except with spies.
“One sec, Palamina.” Hm? The air’s sharper and colder. The sound of waves is faint but new. Has the carriage door been opened? Ah, yes. Held by our driver I see. The ceiling’s blue light spills outward, revealing that John is outside already, looking a bit unsteady on the cobblestone. He leans on the frame of the carriage, shoulder pressed against it tightly and stretching towards me with an extended hand and a serious face. An ailing gentleman. “Ready to be fancy?”
“Thank you, John.” I take his offer with a tight grip, matching his stone-like expression for what comes next.
My three-step descent is much slower than the hurried clicks from our hosts. By the time I have both feet on the ground (and John’s body slightly leaning on me), they are already bowing and curtsying before us. When they rise, all I can see in the glow of the will-o’-wisp is a round frostbite black face with wrinkles from laughter surrounded by cream coloured ringlets piled high. “Lady Charlotte Dodd,” I speak loudly and clearly but most importantly before her as John advised me, “Thank you for the use of your personal carriage and driver. She navigates the darkness very well.”
Her response is immediate and comes with a smile that doesn’t reach eyes as green as the sea. What an ominous expression. "Lady Palamina, you honour me and my entire household with your kind words. I hope tonight hasn't cut into your schedule.” Lady Dodd’s voice is soft and strongly accented. Though I’ve heard that slurred combination of shed and jewel before, what the word is supposed to be still eludes me. Foreign accent aside, her straight back and folded hands look almost scripted, a prelude for forcing merchants, ship captains, and perhaps myself to submit to her demands.
“Not at all,” the words come automatically, “Your invitation was most welcome.” They’re almost insincere. A wish to sate my curiosity about a foreign neighbour mixes with the stress of needing to maintain friendly relations with them. So I step forward, intent on expressing my wavering excitement at being here with a greeting that I wish my subjects would return in kind. Who cares how awkward it may look, I want Lady Dodd seeing herself as on equal footing with myself tonight. Not above me because of her wealth or below me because of my power but on the same level because we can move and speak freely with each other regardless of them. Averting anything negative in the future would be also very welcome.
Well, monsters never miss a chance to get touchy-feely, do they? Left cheek, right cheek, mwah mwah, and both slim dress and puffy dress are managing to do it at the same time. I can't remember Charlotte meeting any women in my time here, and Palamina usually only gets a bow or gasps followed by kneeling. It’s little wonder that getting to receive and dole out her favourite greeting is a surprise for both of us. It’s even slapped a real smile on my lilim buddy’s face here. They’ll get along, I’m sure, even if Charlotte seems kind of low energy right now. I expected her to be yapping away nonstop about everything but business. Wonder if her stiffness has to do with her suspicious new husband?
His fat round eyes have been entirely on the monster duo here. I’m not sure how to describe it but I’ve ran away bounty hunters with that glint. Who is he?
“And this must be your husband.” Besides that.
“Yes, Lord Oleander Dodd.” Fine. Total stranger.
“It’s wonderful to meet you, sir.” My friend greets this new man with a polite smile and a nod before glancing between both the bride and groom. She doesn’t show it but I bet she’s jealous.
“Likewise, Lady Palamina.” He doesn’t look like much like me at all. Stick thin, small features besides his monstrous red eyes, and wearing what looks like a lighter purple version of what I’ve got on.
“And I believe, Lady Dodd, that you are familiar with my escort.” Gods, I wish I could stand up straighter right now. Least I’ve got some lessons on being fancy from Charlotte way back when.
Both Dodds turn to face my still slightly crippled self. Oleander doesn’t want to pay me the slightest bit of attention but he sure is watching how his wife is looking at me. That is to say, one of his thin bushy eyebrows is up, up, and away as Charlotte’s eyes widen and black lips part to whisper, “John Doe…”
“Lady Dodd,” I start with a curt nod.
Hiiii, how ya doin’? Remember the times you tried to get me to slam you on top of the small dining room table? The big dining room table? The lounge? The floors?
“It’s been too long. Congratulations on your marriage.”
But you did arrange for a ship to take me far east after our last meal together almost killed me, so that’s nice. Seriously, that was nice.
“And to you, Lord Dodd. Lady Dodd here does her very best in all the things that matter.”
Guess I could have told her or the cooks about why I was so reserved all the time but noooo, I thought not politely choking down the food would have gotten me into something worse.
I'm not sure what I feel right now but it’s not a grudge. Whatever, it’s getting swapped out real quick with relief as I watch her HUSBAND look lovingly in his WIFE’S direction and whisper lustily, “Yes, she does.”
That's one less monster to worry about in the future.
Palamina, stop looking so surprised that I can speak fancy.
Well, in any case, my somewhat stiff response has Charlotte smiling from ear to ear and calmly casting a hand behind her. “Welcome back. Please, Lady Palamina. Lord Doe. Come inside. Dinner will be ready in but a few minutes.” Maybe she’s just happy to see me alive.
Polly drives the carriage elsewhere as us hosts and guests move together up the ramp side by side, taking a slow pace set by Lady Dodd. Our measured steps lets the cold bite at us longer (just the men really) but allow John to keep up. I don’t believe that Lady Dodd is doing this on purpose but this is better for my friend.
“Was your ride here comfortable?” Our hostess asks in that soft tone of hers, looking into my eyes with a haughty but unsteady expression. One of the details that John passed on to me is that Lady Dodd ‘moves like a rich old woman and talks like a rich young lady.’ He made her sound rather energetic but at this moment, it sounds like a lie. I should be wary of this discrepancy, and ask carefully about her intentions when possible.
“Very,” John declares before I can, shivering from a sudden breeze as we reach halfway up the stone surface. “Polly’s improved quite a lot at navigating the roads during nightfall, I see.”
“Oh yes,” responds Lady Dodd eagerly, surprising me with a burst of energy. “After Miranda was through with her, Polly practically flies through the darkness like an owl now.”
“Mirry- Miranda? I thought she quit during my last stay to travel on a merchant vessel.”
“Yes, but she came back shouting about how her head was filled with as much nonsense as a babe’s nappy. I’m quite certain that she’ll want a word or two with you later.”
“Foul words I imagine.”
The two quickly fall into a conversation all their own, talking about the mansion’s staff in a very informal way. How strange it is to hear John speak in such a long winded manner and even stranger to hear Lady Dodd sound less formal than him. Lord Dodd looks over, beyond both his chatty wife and my equally verbal friend, giving me a perplexed look. I can't help but return it and neither of us are noticed.
I try to keep my mind off them, letting new worries overtake me from observing this enormous foyer we just entered. It’s so rich here, both in colour and wealth. Is every guest assassinated or seduced by a servant like the four, two ghouls and two men, that fall in behind us after bowing deep and low? Does the value of this room, with its two story strawberry and cream coffered ceiling and caramel marble floor, outstrip all the markets of my realm combined? Can the fully armoured archers watching us from the numerous small balconies on the second floor block any attempt at delivering goods to my realm? Will the magical artifacts I can sense all throughout the building render this place impossible to siege target with normal means?
Oh please, no. Let none of those be answerable. There must be no war, even if trade were closed altogether and renders my subjects stagnant. I shiver at all the blood and resentment such a thing causes, pretending that the doors rumbling closed behind us are the cause of my discomfort. Even simply taking the entire Dodd estate by myself, possible with but a few sweeps of my hands, would be a terrible option. Ship captains, some of whom have traveled and traded here for decades, wouldn’t trust a new governour or cry for a broken Lady Dodd. Everything everywhere in the Nothwest Reaches would go into decline except for the Church, utterly destroying my good name and work. I can't imagine what Mother would say about such a shameful defeat.
“Right this way, Lady Dodd. Lady Palamina,” a ghost, dressed in servant’s clothes more tangible than she, interrupts my thoughts as she passes halfway through a closed door on the right like it isn't there at all. The sharply dressed spirit moves quickly, grasping the knocker behind her without looking and pulling open the way to, presumably, the dining room. John nods politely at her as we pass by, her matching gesture making me wonder if he gathered what he knows about our hostess through them.
Before long, we are seated in a small room with a low ceiling lit by candles on the table and torches in the corners up high. A polished wooden rectangular table separates six seats, high-backed chairs pulled backward by the servants that stalked us. John and I are seated on one broad side and the Dodds sit across from us rather than at the heads of the table. This lack of formality shouldn't be worrying but yet it is.
Now then, when and where do John’s tips about Lady Dodd change what I’ve read about formal dining?
“...ke clucking hens.” As I survey the numerous utensils before me, I hear the rather overly friendly chatter finally end on a sheepish tone. Has the food arrived? “Pardon me, Lady Palamina.” Apparently no. I’m looking up now regardless and the timing couldn’t be better. Lady Dodd has deigned to speak with me again, turning to look me straight in the eyes.
“Yes?” I ask, trying to keep my annoyance with her inside me.
“I'm glad today’s weather is so favourable. It’s allowed me to finish arranging something special for tonight.” Her words suggest that she’s quite clearly still elated from her chat with John but that face, wavering between a twitchy smile and almost pursed lips confuses me. There’s a plan of some kind about to begin here. I’m sure of it.
The door to this room swings open again as I calmly ask, “And why is tonight so important, Lady Dodd?” My heart tenses and the tips of my fingers, hidden in the tightened fists on my lap, begin to glow.
A large silver tray is gently placed on the center of the table. There is a two-layer round cake on it, coloured pink. This can't be the first course.
Wait. Carved from sugar in the center, a fist clutching a spiral shell. That’s my emblem. Why is-
“Today is the day you were born, Lady Palamina.” I gasp, unable to control how I feel. “Good fortune and health to you for all time.”
Godsdamnit, are you kidding me?
Did I miss a hint somewhere? The last letters we exchanged maybe?
“Well, it’s your birthday, happy to celebrate it with you.” Yes, just mindlessly congratulate her as she’s nearly in tears and clap a bit right along with everyone else- I DIDN’T KNOW.
Wow. Maybe I do care hard enough if I’m mad about never asking about her birthday. I only attended one while I was on the run and not even that many out here in the Northwest Reaches. Zeeeero.
“This night has been in planning for the past month,” Oleander states with a lopsided smile, “ever since we found out that you and your escort here-” What’s that approving look at me for? “-tamed your magic, Lady Palamina.” I swear that man's so smug that if he could buy a printing of her open mouth of EXTREME happiness right now, he’d have it done yesterday.
“Thank you, thank you! It’s been fifty years since someone’s said that to me!” What, her subjects never get around to wishing her well? Oh right, it would never have been to her face for a good long time.
“And we’ll say it as many times as you’d like.” Charlotte almost shouts before smiling politely, all the tension gone from her face, shoulders, speech, everything. Oh ho, wow, neither the great lilim leader or the wondrous wight trader had any idea how to approach each other, did they? That’s funny.
Me not having a gift for Palamina is not.
But first, it's time to power through this multi-course meal of demonic pain, starting with this surprisingly clear looking soup.
I'm just going to stare for as long as I can and think bleeeeehhhhh.