The Forests of Evenlear, Part Nine: Strange Discoveries
The weekend of the Havenwing Ball arrived. Usually when I returned to Uncle Oruc’s and Aunt Monria’s house after school each day I took time to join my aunt for tea or, if she was otherwise engaged, took tea by myself in the library with a good book to refresh me after my day’s work.
But on the Friday before the ball I raced directly to my room, hastily changed into riding clothes, and rushed to the stables, where that morning I had left a special request with the stable master to have two horses saddled and waiting.
I found Thistle and Dove waiting for me. Dove was, in my opinion, very poorly named, since the name implied a calm, gentle nature and she was without doubt the most skittish ninny of a horse that I had ever met, but the stable master had been kind enough to carry out my request so I could not in good conscience complain. I decided that I would ride Thistle out into the farmlands to meet Mira, and then switch to ride Dove since I did not think Mira’s riding skills were a match for Dove’s temperament just yet.
The sky was covered with clotted, dark gray clouds as I neared our meeting place, and I worried that we might arrive back in Havenwing looking like a couple of half-drowned vagabonds, but riding over the hill to see Mira’s smiling face made me forget any concerns about rain. She looked excited enough to burst—another one of those smiles that I just had to join in. In all my life, I had never had a friend who could make me smile so easily.
I dismounted and barely had time to get my balance before she flung her arms around me. “I am so happy and I cannot believe that this is happening!” she declared. “We’re going to have such a wonderful and exciting time, aren’t we?”
I laughed. “Of course we are. But hurry now! It may already be too late to get back to my aunt and uncle’s house before it rains!”
“Right.” Mira picked up the pack that had been sitting on the ground, settled it on her shoulders, and started to untie Dove’s reins from Thistle’s saddle.
“Oh, I’ll ride her,” I said, “and you can ride Thistle.”
“I thought you were riding Thistle,” Mira said.
“Well, I was, but only because she’s the better tempered of the two. I don’t want you riding Dove until you’re a little more practiced. She’s terribly scatterbrained and she shies easily.”
As if confirming my words, Dove chose that moment to dance away in fear of some imaginary threat. I hurried forward to take the horse from Mira, but before I could reach her she had pulled on Dove’s reins, bringing her closer, and laid a hand gently but firmly on her face.
“Shhh. Quiet now, Dove,” Mira said. Her voice was soft, softer than I had ever heard her speak, and yet the undertones clearly made the words a strong command. For a moment she and Dove stood staring into each other’s eyes, both of them motionless. Then Dove’s body relaxed and she whickered softly and chewed on her bit.
Mira smiled at me. “I think she and I will get along fine,” she said. Before I could protest she swung up into Dove’s saddle and laughed down at me. “I thought you said we were in a hurry!”
I was still gawking, utterly at a loss. “Mira... how did you do that? What did you do?”
Mira shrugged. “Nothing.”
“Dove isn’t behaving better for you than she does for anyone else for nothing, Mira!”
She shrugged again. “Animals like me. I suppose I have ‘a way’ with them.”
I was about to demand a better explanation when a raindrop struck the side of my face.
Mira squinted up at the sky. “Oh dear.”
Well, there was no time to worry about it now. I jumped onto Thistle’s back and we set our course for Havenwing.
By the time we reached my aunt and uncle’s house we were not quite half drowned, but we would do until something half drowned came along. Aunt Monria met us in the entry hall with blankets which she threw around us, and bundled us immediately upstairs to the hot baths she had ordered one of the maids to draw for us. She didn’t even allow me to take time to introduce Mira to her, assuring me there would be plenty of time for that and more once we were both warm and dry.
After hot baths, dry clothes, a glorious tea and an hour by the fire, Aunt Monria seemed satisfied that Mira and I were beyond the threat of death by pneumonia and released us from her care. Wanting to be well-rested for the next day, we hurried up to my room.
“You can share my bed with me,” I said as we climbed the stairs. “It’s enormous anyway, and that way we can talk until we fall asleep.”
I swung the heavy door open and we walked in, but both of us stopped in our tracks with mouths gaping.
Mira stared at my giant four-poster bed, its draperies reaching to the dais it stood on.
I was staring at the dress hanging on my wardrobe door. The pale, pearly-green fabric appeared seamless from shoulder to hem; a filigree of emerald-green embroidery swirled over the bodice, shining faintly in the candlelight, and layers of tapered panels in varying shades of green veiled the skirt; matching brooches fashioned like ivy leaves gathered the dress at the shoulders before it fell away into long, flowing sleeves of the same pearly green that made up the dress’s base layer.
Mira’s voice jerked me out of my stupor. “What on earth would anyone ever need a bed this big for? My entire family could sleep here!”
I was not sufficiently recovered to answer her. I still could not tear my eyes away from her dress. “Mira...” I said, though my voice was little more than a breath, “this is your dress?”
“Hmm? Oh!” She stepped past me and squeezed a handful of the skirts. My heart jumped into my throat. I would have been terrified even to touch such a garment! “Well, it seems to have dried out nicely,” she said, letting go and feeling another handful from the sleeve. “It got a bit wet in my pack on the ride back, so one of your aunt’s maids offered to hang it up for me. Very kind of her.”
“You... you had that dress... in your pack?!” Even as I said it, I noticed that the places she had squeezed in her hand showed not the first sign of wrinkling.
Mira giggled. “Well how else was I supposed to get it here? But now, tell me truly: will it do for the ball tomorrow night, do you think?”
“Do? Will it do? Mira, that is the most exquisite dress I have ever seen in my life! You’ll not just ‘do,’ you’ll be the belle of the ball!”
Her cheeks flushed. “Don’t be silly, Lythia.”
“It’s the truth, you wait and see! And now you tell me: where did you ever get such a dress?”
The pink in Mira’s cheeks faded a little as she shrugged. “My mother is an excellent seamstress.”
Why did she keep doing that, shrugging all my questions away and giving such vague answers? Did she think I could not see that there were dimensions of her life beyond the few shallow ones she was willing to share with me? She dressed like a farm girl, had never been to the city, and could barely read at all. Yet her father crafted items of nearly magical workmanship out of rare and expensive materials, her mother created masterpieces fit for royalty, and Mira herself had calmed a wild, flighty horse with only her eyes and her touch.
We finished getting ready for bed and climbed beneath the covers, following Aunt Monria’s orders to turn in early. Mira went still and her breaths settled into the deep, steady rhythm of sleep within a few minutes, but I couldn’t sleep. I lay staring up at into the dark, occasionally glancing at where I knew Mira was, though I couldn’t see her.
A faint uneasiness squirmed in the back of my mind as I thought about how little I actually knew about this girl. What if Aunt Monria or Uncle Oruc asked questions about her? What would I say?
How could I tell them that the more I got to know Mira, the more I realized that I didn’t really know her at all?