The nosey innkeeper’s wife then went so far as to suggest a visit to a dressmaker. I wasn’t particularly impressed by the fact that we’d shortly be entertaining a king, but she was.
‘What’s wrong with what I’m wearing?’ I asked her pugnaciously.
‘Different occasions require different clothing, dear,’ she replied.
‘Foolishness,’ I said. ‘I’ll get a new smock when this one wears out.’
I think she gave up at that point. I’m sure she thought I was incorrigibly ‘woodsy’, one of those unfortunates who’ve never received the benefits of civilization.
And then Anrak brought Riva to our rooms. I’ll grant that he was physically impressive. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen anyone – except the other men in his family – quite so tall. He had blue eyes and a black beard, and I hated him. He muttered a brief greeting to my father, and then he sat down to look at Beldaran.
Beldaran looked right back.
It was probably the most painful afternoon I’d spent in my entire life up until then. I’d hoped that Riva would be more like his cousin, Anrak, blurting out things that would offend my sister, but the idiot wouldn’t say anything! All he could do was look at her with that adoring expression on his face, and Beldaran was almost as bad in her obvious adoration of him.
I was definitely fighting a rear-guard action here.
We all sat in absolute silence watching them adore each other, and every moment was like a knife in my heart. I’d lost my sister, there wasn’t much question about that. I wasn’t going to give either of them the satisfaction of seeing me bleed openly, however, so I did all of my bleeding inside. It was quite obvious that the separation of Beldaran and me which had begun before we were ever born was now complete, and I wanted to die.
Finally, when it was almost evening, my last hope died, and I felt tears burning my eyes.
Rather oddly – I hadn’t been exactly polite to him – it was father who rescued me. He came over and took my hand. ‘Why don’t we take a little walk, Pol?’ he suggested gently. Despite my suffering, his compassion startled me. He was the last one in the world I’d have expected that from. My father does surprise me now and then.
He led me from the room, and I noticed as we left that Beldaran didn’t even take her eyes off Riva’s face as I went away. That was the final blow, I think.
Father took me down the hallway to the little balcony at the far end, and we went outside, closing the door behind us.
I tried my very best to keep my sense of loss under control. ‘Well,’ I said in my most matter-of-fact way, ‘I guess that settles that, doesn’t it?’
Father murmured some platitudes about destiny, but I wasn’t really listening to him. Destiny be hanged! I’d just lost my sister! Finally, I couldn’t hold it in any longer. With a wail I threw my arms around his neck and buried my face in his chest, weeping uncontrollably.
That went on for quite some time until I’d finally wept myself out. Then I got my composure back. I decided that I wouldn’t ever let Riva or Beldaran see me suffering, and, moreover, that I’d take some positive steps to show them that I really didn’t care that my sister was willingly deserting me. I questioned father about some things that wouldn’t have concerned me before – baths, dressmakers, combs, and the like. I’d show my sister how little I really cared. If I was suffering, I’d make sure that she suffered too.
I took particular pains with my bath. In my eyes this was a sort of funeral – mine – and it was only proper that I should look my best when they laid me out. My chewed off fingernails gave me a bit of concern at first, but then I remembered our gift. I concentrated on my nails and then said, ‘Grow.’
And that took care of that.
Then I luxuriated for almost an hour in my bath. I wanted to soak off all the accumulated dirt, certainly, but I was surprised to discover that bathing felt good.
When I climbed out of the barrel-like wooden tub, I toweled myself down, put on a robe, and sat down to deal with my hair. It wasn’t easy. My hair hadn’t been washed since the last rain-storm in the Vale, and it was so tangled and snarled that I almost gave up on it. It took a lot of effort, and it was very painful, but at last I managed to get it to the point where I could pull a comb through it.
I didn’t sleep very much that night, and I arose early to continue my preparations. I sat down in front of a mirror made of polished brass and looked at my reflection rather critically. I was somewhat astonished to discover that I wasn’t nearly as ugly as I’d always imagined. As a matter of fact, I was quite pretty.
‘Don’t let it go your head, Pol,’ mother’s voice told me. ‘You didn’t actually think that I’d give birth to an ugly daughter, did you?’
‘I’ve always thought I was hideous, mother,’ I said.
‘You were wrong. Don’t overdo it with your hair. The white lock doesn’t need any help to make you pretty.’
The blue dress father’d obtained for me was really quite nice. I put it on and looked at myself in the mirror. I was just a little embarrassed by what I saw. There wasn’t any question that I was a woman. I’d been more or less ignoring certain evidences of my femaleness, but that was no longer really possible. The dress positively screamed the fact. There was a problem with the shoes, though. They had pointed toes and medium heels, and they hurt my feet. I wasn’t used to shoes, but I gritted my teeth and endured them.
The more I looked in my mirror, the more I liked what I saw. The worm I’d always been had just turned into a butterfly. I still hated Riva, but my hatred softened just a bit. He hadn’t intended it, but it was his arrival in Camaar that had revealed to me what I really was.
I was pretty! I was something even beyond pretty!
‘What an amazing thing,’ I murmured.
My victory was made complete that morning when I demurely – I’d practiced for a couple of hours – entered the room where the others were sitting. I’d more or less taken the reactions of Riva and Anrak for granted. Uneducated though I was, I knew how they’d view me in my altered condition. The face I looked at was Beldaran’s.
I’d rather hoped to see just a twinge of envy there, but I should have known better. Her expression was just a little quizzical, and when she spoke, it was in ‘twin’. What passed between us was intensely private. ‘Well, finally,’ was all she said, and then she embraced me warmly.