Vidanja had never been to an Orgulloso event before. She was very nervous and unsure of how they would respond to her presence there with Delfin. She sat before a mirror in her apartment with Sania behind her, brushing her hair back and tugging it this way and that to find the perfect hairstyle.
“You need to let some bits hang down, Vi. They will make you extra-pretty.” Sania giggled, excited to be helping her friend go to such a gathering even if she herself could not go.
“Maybe I should try to put on some makeup,” Vidanja looked at her face. The words of her vocation stained her chin and neck and she felt self-conscious. The Orgullosos were rich and proud and she was just an employee of the nation. She didn’t really belong with them. She had been to many events with Delfin during his time in the employ of the Sovereign, but this was the first time she would go to a party given by and for the upper class only in Karagad. She knew that by tradition Ayudantes were always welcome because of their ubiquitous status of being servants of La Nacion, but she expected to be looked down upon because she had no money or status of her own. She was thankful that in this turbulent political atmosphere, none of them could tell she was a Cari.
When Delfin came to escort her, Vidanja was taken aback by the elegance of the carriage. It was drawn by two pachans bedecked in jewels and fine cloth. The giant lizards’ horns had been filed into spirals and holes had been drilled into them into which sparkling studs had been placed. She stood in awe, suddenly feeling very much like royalty to be invited to ride in such an extravagant vehicle. Delfin, smiling widely at her blushing cheeks and excitement, swung the door wide open and helped her into the carriage. The inside was also lavishly appointed, with padded seats, soft and rough fabrics on the pillows. It was a textural delight and she nervously held a rough pillow, running her fingers over the surface of the fabric.
As the pachans took off, Vidanja smiled nervously at Delfin, who returned her smile. “This is so exciting” she proffered, unable to think of much to say over the fluttering in her belly. She leaned close to him and said conspiratorially “I’m nervous.”
Delfin laughed, and for a moment Vidanja forgot all about his indignities toward her. “Don’t be nervous. You will be the star of the show, Vidanja. Orgullosos love Ayudantes because you don’t have to do anything for status except just be. There should be someone there more nervous than you anyway, because the introduction of a new family is always a tense time and it doesn’t happen very often.”
Vidanja wondered what this new family would be like. All she had heard is that they were from another continent and were in the textile industry. She thought she’d heard they were weavers. She imagined they must have been at the top of their business because weavers weren’t so revered here in Karagad. While Vidanja tried to overcome her nerves and prepare mentally for a gathering which included none of her own status, the carriage bore her closer to their destination.
Upon arrival Vidanja stood mute, eyes wide when she and Delfin were announced and the whole of the ballroom turned their eyes to them. Some people she recognized but there were many she did not. She felt instantly more comfortable, though, when Orgullosos began to come to her and engage her in conversation.
“I’ve heard of your fame in storytelling, Ayudante Rajiramon. One of my workers’ sons was executed and it was you who reconciled him to La Nacion before his death. You are well known for your prowess.” One woman confided to her, nodding slightly as she spoke. She smiled at Vidanja earnestly and clasped her hands. “This man is one of my most valued employees and he was absolutely despondent at the crimes of his son and worse, the intimation that his son’s name might be forgotten. It was you who helped that man to find peace. May your name long be written on the city’s walls, Ayudante Rajiramon.”
Vidanja blushed, unsure of how to respond. She’d been embraced and thanked by the family and friends of the condemned before, but never by an Orgulloso. She supposed she didn’t even think they were aware of her work. Her heart was warmed and she began to feel more at home. Her concerns of being judged had melted away and she was happily part of the crowd when everyone turned at another announcement.
“The Family Khenazy” the man’s voice boomed. Vidanja didn’t catch the names because she had instead caught sight of the regal Khenazy family themselves. The matriarch of the family, a woman with black and grey hair pulled into a severe bun covered by a traditional Orgulloso headpiece, stepped into the room and smiled graciously, bowing and being bowed to in return. There was a young man, no more than a teenager, who seemed uncomfortable to be in the procession but world-weary, as if he’d been through this before and would rather be anywhere but there. As Vidanja looked for a father, she was instead greeted with the sight of a strikingly beautiful young woman. She was in awe at the woman’s style of dress. It was certainly lavish, but so very different from the traditional Orgulloso clothing that she quickly became a centerpiece. Her dress fell in irregular layers, seemed at once to cling and flow, and the fabric had a sheen which seemed to be one color at one moment and a different color the next. As she stared, she realized why this weaver family was so prominent, if they could make fabrics such as these.
Presently the party made their way to Vidanja and the little crowd she was in. Delfin, having vanished some time ago reappeared with two goblets in his hand. He took a sip from one, and as Vidanja was reaching for the other he handed it to the girl.
“This is my friend from school, Ayudante Rajiramon.” Vidanja was thrown off by his introduction. Since when did he refer to her by her title? She assumed it was because of the status of these new people and she took it in stride. She bowed and offered honorifics.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Miss Khenazy.” She met the young woman’s eyes. The girl took a bored sip, her eyes fixed on Vidanja’s mouth and chin.
“Is it customary for you to write on your skin before a gathering, Miss Rajiramon?”
“I…it’s a tattoo. All those of my vocation receive them.”
The woman stared harder, leaning closely. “What does it say?”
“It’s an ancient script of Karagad. The testaments of the condemned are recorded here after they are executed.” She felt self-conscious suddenly, explaining herself to this girl.
Delfin interjected “Ah my parents are over there. Sofelil, let me take you to meet them.” Vidanja stood awkwardly glancing in the direction of Delfin’s family, still stung by their continued rejection of her. She didn’t know what to think of the way they so enthusiastically received Sofelil, and the way Delfin himself was so suddenly stuck to her. While this was all processing Sofelil’s mother had made her way to Vidanja and requested she tell her a story, as she herself had come from a long line of storytellers in her home in the City of Threads.
“We weave our stories into the cloths of tapestries, and have done so for many hundreds of years. You and I are kindred spirits.” The older women sighed softly, letting her eyes drift in the direction of her daughter. “Sofelil has the ability to weave but she has no interest. Her father doted on her and our son and now they are idle, wanting only to enjoy the fruits of our work.” Her eyes settled on Vidanja’s, not once slipping to her chin. “Not many here know that storytelling exists outside of books and mouths, Ayudante.”
This unexpected sense of familiarity with this woman made Vidanja want to blurt out that she too knew weaving and was taught the art by her own father, and she wanted to sit down with this woman and talk with her about what it must be like on that distant continent, in this City of Threads. The paltry weaving she had learned at the knee of her father was nothing like these dazzling examples brought from across the sea. The Khenazy woman seemed to sense that Vidanja was holding something back, and she leaned in close to her ear.
“I’m certain I will encounter you again, Ayudante Rajiramon. You and I may be kindred in spirit and otherwise.” With that the woman turned and continued her rounds in the crowded ballroom. Vidanja glanced around but nobody seemed to notice what had transpired except Delfin, who looked at her until Sofelil commanded again his atttention.
On the way back home late in the night, Vidanja clutched the same pillow. She was tired, pleasantly happy, and couldn’t wait to be home and in bed.
“Sofelil’s family supplied these fabrics.” He’d been watching her finger the pillow.
“Oh, well they’re certainly very talented. Her dress was amazing.”
“What did her mother say to you?”
“She just said that we’re both storytellers and-”
“Does she know you’re a Cari?” Vidanja turned to face him, perplexed.
“I don’t know. I don’t think so. Why?”
“I wouldn’t mention it if I were you. We all know that supposedly your people descended from those on the other continent but that was long ago and that does not in any way make you special or somehow ‘closer’ to them. If I were you, I would stay in my station and not aspire to more than is realistic.”
Vidanja didn’t know where this was coming from but she felt she had done something wrong. Chastened, she stared out the window. When the carriage stopped and Delfin began to get out to assist her she told him “I can do it. You must be tired. Thank you and goodnight.” She found Sania inside, sleeping on a lounge in the front room of the apartment. Thankful that she didn’t have to explain to her friend what had just transpired, she went to bed.
She didn’t see Delfin for a few days. He was scarce, and she intuited that he was probably spending time with Sofelil. Sania had excitedly asked her the next morning over breakfast what the party was like and Vidanja patiently filled her in, leaving out mention of her exchange with Sofelil’s mother.
“So this Sofelil must be really gorgeous huh?” Sania asked innocuously, then looked at Vidanja curiously when she didn’t answer. “You’re not…worried are you? About Delfin?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, I mean if Sofelil is as pretty as you say, every man will want her. I don’t think you have to worry about Delfin taking up with her. Besides, you two practically belong together. One day he’ll see how much you’re worth, Vidanja.”
Vidanja hoped so, more than anything else. But later that week she encountered Delfin and Sofelil in the Sovereign Home as they emerged from a meeting with the Sovereign himself.
“Delfin, hello!” She bowed to Sofelil “Hello Miss Khenazy. I trust you’re well.”
Delfin greeted her with detachment, as if he barely knew her. Sofelil was polite but not nearly as gracious as her mother had been.
“Oh it’s your school friend. Hello Ayudante. Have you had a busy day of sipping poisons with the condemned?”
Vidanja reddened, and her face felt hot when she heard Delfin chuckling along with Sofelil. “I do not currently have any assignments, Miss Khenazy.” She tried to appeal to her art, “Your dress was beautiful at the party the other night. I have never seen a fabric like that before. Did you weave it yourself?”
Sofelil stared blankly at Vidanja, then looked to Delfin as if in supplication. “I don’t weave, Ayudante. That is for lesser hands. I know how but that is the tradition of my family. As for that dress, you may have it if you like. You may not have seen fabric such as that before but it is common in upper circles. I suppose that being an employee of your state you have never had access to such things.” Vidanja was stung to her core and looked to Delfin for reassurance.
“That’s very kind of you, Sofelil. Vidanja has never had many nice possessions and can be easily surprised by the simplest things. I’m certain the dress will look almost as lovely on her as it did on you.” Sofelil giggled and then the two of them wished Vidanja a good day and strolled down the hall arm in arm.
For the next few months Vidanja threw herself into her work and Delfin became almost a distant memory. She encountered him here and there but he seemed mostly to be enchanted with Sofelil. Her heart ached and she wished that he would come see her. She even came to miss his late-night visits to her apartment. During this time Vidanja was contracted to go back to the creche and spend some of her time teaching the new classes of testamientos. She was chosen for her superior storytelling skills and she enjoyed being there, helping the students learn how to take and share a testimony.
Her work brought her back into close contact with Ayudante Moreno, who while growing older and more grey, had come to match his dour inner self even more. He was pleased, however, to show off to the students and parents how one of the students of his creche had become such a well-known testamiento. It was she, now, instead of Ayudante Baron who escorted the young men and women to have their lips tattooed with their statements, and she who accompanied the most promising of them to their first encounters with the condemned. From this perspective, she could see herself from those years ago and was astounded at how far she’d come.
“Well, Ayudante Rajiramon. It seems you have become out star pupil. Several of our students have been in attendance at your recitals at the wall, and were inclined to choose the path of testamiento because of you.”
Vidanja blushed and nodded demurely, uttering a soft “thank you.”
“It seems your contant friend Delfin has been a rising star as well. I’m sure you’re proud of his new position as second strategist to the Sovereign. We’re very pleased to have educated you both here, and to be honest Vidanja it’s really thanks to you that he has gone as far as he did. He never seemed to have any impetus but you somehow gave him drive. I know that we’re at war with your country right now but I’m glad that we had you in this creche. No matter what they say of the Cari, you’re an exceptional example.”
Vidanja took this little sting internally, pressing her lips together in a tight smile. She hoped it looked sincere to Moreno, however. She was a citizen of Karagad and yet, it still hurt when people made negative comments about Cari. She didn’t know why, because she wasn’t one of them any more. Despite these comments she was glad to have finally earned Ayudante Moreno’s esteem and was happy to be back in the creche for a while, helping students on her path. She was troubled by this news of Delfin’s promotion. She had helped him find work in the Palace and he’d always shared his news with her, pleased to be upwardly mobile in the status-conscious circles of Karagad. She hadn’t even known he’d been involved in strategy, much less that he’d become employed in the Sovereign Home itself. She was hurt. She thought Delfin would have told her. Moreno took in her troubled visage.
“I think that new woman of his, Sofelil, has been helping to grease the wheels for him. Since you’re such good friends maybe she can help you too.” She doubted it, and when she heard the afternoon bell she excused herself and went to the classroom where she could numb her mind by teaching.
Vidanja found her time at the creche to be rewarding and she was returning from a long day there when she encountered Sofelil and her mother in the city center. She bowed as usual and offered honorifics. Sofelil barely looked at her. The matriarch greeted her with a smile and said “I knew we had something in common. You’re a Cari, and you know your people are descended from mine. And you weave, as well?”
Vidanja was horrified. She stood there, eyes fixed on the matriarch’s face. Sofelil stood behind her mother, with a derisive look on her face. “I…well Ihaven’t woven since I was a small child and-”
“Mother, whatever weaving she learned was probably low weaving. Surely you don’t imagine she’s a descendant of the City of Threads. Besides now she tells her stories on her skin.”
“Sofelil, you don’t have to be so crass. This young woman is a venerated testamiento and she’s a distant relative, though quite removed. You would do well to be kind to her, as she’s very close with your suitor.”
The rest of the conversation seemed to vanish as soon as the words dropped from the lips that delivered them. She saw the matriarch smile and felt her take her hand warmly. She saw her mouth moving and then the two of them moved on, Sofelil’s face petulant and entitled. She made her purchases and then went home, dejected. She was not pleased to find Sania in the apartment when she got there.
“Don’t you live somewhere, Sania?”
Not recognizing the bite in her words, Sania grinned hugely. “I don’t like it as much as your place. So, you must have heard then. Now that Delfin’s been promoted he can support you in grand style when you-”
“I don’t want to hear anything else about Delfin!” Vidanja dropped her sacks to the floor and escaped into her room, slamming the door behind her. Sania, shocked, stood outside and tapped gently.
“Vi? Vi what’s wrong? What happened? I thought that you’d be happy.”
“Leave me alone, Sania. And the next time we talk don’t bring him up again.” The tightness of her throat made it almost impossible for Vidanja to speak without crying and she clutched her pillow.
“Just GO!” She did.
Across the city, in Delfin’s new, handsome quarters in the palace, Sofelil lounged on a pile of pillows.
“And then my mother acted as if she were really someone. She even said you’re close to Vidanja.” She squinted her eyes through the haze of intoxication from the wine she had been sipping. “How close are you to her Delfin?”
His voice, as smooth as ever, came closer to her and then into her ear as he slid next to her. “Sofelil, she’s like a little sister to me. I’ve told you. I had to tutor her in school and then she seemed to fall in love with me. She knows that she and I are worlds apart and that nothing could ever happen between us. Besides, what use would I have for her when I have such a lovely woman as yourself?”
Sofelil giggled, warmth flushing through her from the wine and his words. “She’s a Cari. Did you know that? One of those dirty little people from the next country. I don’t think she wants anyone to know. My mother acts like she’s somehow our equal, or even yours.”
“She knows what she is and she knows her place. Sadly for her, she could never stand in my heart where you do, or next to me where you belong.” He grinned and nibbled her earlobe, sending her into a sultry giggle. She kissed his lips and then whispered “Tell me again about what a lovely consort I’ll be to the Sovereign.”
Delfin began to speak to her softly, his lips brushing her ear. After a few moments Sofelil drained her goblet and tried to place it on a table. It fell over but she didn’t care. That hand was already on his cheek and she was already kissing him.
Later that night Vidanja’s apartment door opened and Delfin slipped in. He was at the threshold to her bedroom when she sat up, pushing her hair back with her hand. Quickly he made his way to the bed and began slipping out of his clothes.
“Delfin what are you doing here? Shouldn’t you be busy with Sofelil or sleeping for work tomorrow?” Vidanja was annoyed at his appearance and sank back under the covers.
Heedless of her irritation, Delfin lit a candle and sat on the bed, turning to her.
“Vidanja it’s not like that. She’s from a wealthy and famous family. She can help me. Think of her like a stepping stone for me to get to the Sovereignty someday. Just my association with her has helped me to get a promotion. Isn’t that wonderful?” His hand rested itself on her upper arm and she shook it off.
“It didn’t seem like she’s just a stepping stone. It seemed like you really care for her and…and it seems like you share her low opinion of me.”
“Vidanja, no. I’m sorry. Look, I have to stay in her favor. Her mother is influential where they come from and she’s become influential here. You know the Orgullosos have the ear of the Sovereign and I just want to stay on their good side. Her mother likes you. Sofelil is just haughty and she thinks everyone is beneath her, even me. I have to prove myself to her to keep her respect. Vidanja, please. Just, you know I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t need you.” He rested his hand on her again and this time she let it stay. From the mound of linens she pouted silently then asked him “So are you here to apologize or are you here to take up residence in my bed for the night?”
He sighed and squeezed gently. “I’ll leave if you want me to.” Rising, he began for the door when Vidanja sat back up. She reached her arms out to him.
In the rosy moments after their grapplings Vidanja lay on her back, looking up at the ceiling while Delfin dozed next to her. She looked over at him and felt suffused with emotion. She had been worried for nothing. In the end it was her that he came to, it was her bed in which he was sleeping now.
“You know it’s been a long time since I’ve told you a story.”
“It has.” He burrowed deeper under the cover.
“I used to tell them to you because I felt like I couldn’t be honest with you but tonight, since you came here, I realized that I’ve been silly all these years.” She smiled, inhaling a shaky breath. She was going to tell him the truth now that she knew he wasn’t in love with Sofelil. They’d been friends forever and she finally felt comfortable enough with him to tell him her true feelings.
“Delfin I have to be honest with you. I just wrote those stories because I felt like I couldn’t tell you. You might already know this but I’ve never said it to you before. I-” She stalled and took a deep breath, “I love you Delfin.”
“Delfin?” There was no reply. He was motionless and his breathing was steady. He must have fallen asleep she thought, and sighed. Maybe this is for the best. She went to sleep too. After she was deeply sleeping he slipped out of her bed and went home. He had to meet Sofelil in a few hours.