The sandstorm swirls outside the dormitory windows. No one goes to the tavern in this weather, and there's no money to be made on whores that wind up dead in the harsh winds and sand, so Helgenish locks the doors and shuts the windows, and retreats to his villa until the storm blows over. Sandstorms are an inconvenience to most— they interrupt trade, close down markets, and fling sand and grit into any crack and crevice, but to the dancers, they're a reprieve. A window of peace, time to bandage wounds and rest aching heads. This is life for Yusufa— a life in Sunshade, the only life she's ever known.
Yusufa's young. No one's ever asked her age. But Primrose says she's fourteen, and Yusufa's pretty sure they're about the same age, so being fourteen would make sense. It doesn't matter that much, but it's nice to know, she supposes.
Prim's skin is still baby-soft. Her sunburn's still healing, peeling the skin on her cheeks and shoulders. She's wrapped the blisters on her feet in scraps of cloth, swiped away the blood on her split lip, raised her chin and squared her shoulders against pain she's been fortunate enough not to know. But even Prim, stubborn, brave Prim, can't keep her head up all the time.
She's curled on her side in their corner. Yusufa's always had the spot in the far corner, shoved against the fabric rack and furthest away from the fireplace, because she's Yusufa, and Prim got exiled to the corner because she's the youngest. She has her head on her battered leather bag, lying on her stomach so the welts on her back won't press onto the folds in her blanket. Every now and then she rubs at her temple despite the fact it never helps.
"You can rest," Yusufa tries to say. "I'll watch out for you."
Primrose grumbles. Yusufa shrinks. She should've known better than to say anything. She's tried to be kind to all the girls and it's never gotten her anywhere— just because Prim is her age and helped her out when those other girls accused her of stealing a hairbrush doesn't mean she has the right to try, it doesn't mean they're friends. Stupid girl, foolish girl.
But Primrose waves her hand. "Don't worry about me," she says. "I've been through worse." A lie. Primrose has lived the life of a pampered noble girl until a year ago. She told Yusufa so herself, and even if she didn't, Yusufa could tell— how she stands with her back straight and her chin out, how she talks like she expects the world to listen.
Yusufa bites at her lip. She fidgets with the fraying hem of her blanket while the sandstorm rages on. A few of the older dancers pass around a pipe and murmur by the fireplace. Madame Anya sorts through the box of stolen liquor they hide from Helgenish. There's someone crying, muffled poorly with a blanket or bedroll. No one will say anything about it when she stops. They've all been her, at one time or another. Words of comfort are hollow and pointless— silent acceptance says more than words ever could.
"Sorry," Yusufa mumbles.
Primrose shifts, clenching her jaw against the pain. Yusufa's seen girls like Primrose crack under Helgenish, but Primrose has never once complained. The others call her haughty, snobby, stuck-up— Helgenish's precious little flower, too good for all the rest of them. She acts like she doesn't even hear them. Yusufa wishes she were that strong.
"Don't be," Primrose replies. She fumbles in her bag and pulls out a piece of some kind of long, thick cloth Yusufa's never seen. She presses it against her eyes and sets her head back down.
Yusufa runs her thumb over the hem again. Loose threads catch on her bitten fingernails. The sandstorm winds rattle the shutters of the dormitory, dropping sand and dust through the cracks. There's a window right above their corner. Sand lands on top of Yusufa's blanket, and despite knowing it's pointless, she dusts it off. One time Primrose tried to sneak out through the window, only to find Helgenish locks them from the outside, putting a stop to any escape attempts before they even start.
Primrose huffs impatiently, dusting the sand from her own blanket. "You know, where I'm from, storms are made of rain and thunder, like normal weather," she says.
"What's thunder?" Yusufa asks. She's seen rain— little sprinklings, here and there, around the oasis, but not much, never a storm. You can live in the Sunlands your whole life and never see more than an inch of rain.
"When the sky rumbles," Primrose says. "It can be loud, but only if it's close. If it's far away it's just a quiet grumble."
Yusufa shivers. "It sounds scary," she says.
"Only if you don't really know what it is, I suppose," Primrose shrugs.
Yusufa looks at the rattling shutters, the sand dusting the blankets. Candlelight catches it as it falls through the air. When the storm ends, they'll shake the dust out of all the blankets and bedrolls and curtains, and it'll be Yusufa's job to clean all the grit that's escaped from the grout lines in the stone tile. Yusufa does chores while the other girls dance— that's how it's always been. She's probably too clumsy and stupid to dance, anyway.
"I don't know a lot of things," she murmurs.
Prim didn't hear her. "What was that?"
"Nothing," Yusufa says. "Just, um, thinking, I suppose."
Primrose hums. She leaves it be. Yusufa's glad for that. She doesn't think she'd know how to handle it if someone were actually concerned about what she thought.
The dormitory's small enough that smoke from the pipe wafts over to their corner. Yusufa can smell the cinnamon. Even from a distance, several feet below where the smoke rises to the ceiling, it numbs her nostrils. They never let her share, on those rare occasions they can indulge, but Yusufa's gotten whiffs of what it does— muffles sharp edges, dulls painful memories, relaxes muscles that have been tense too long. It's a dangerous place, the underbelly of Sunshade. People do what they can to medicate, even if it kills them. Perhaps especially if it'll kill them— when it's death either way, people tend to like it better on their own terms.
The dancers share a laugh, through hoarse throats full of smoke. The shutters rattle, and sand falls through the slats. Prim grimaces, rubbing her head again.
"Wish they'd shut up," she mutters. "Some of us are trying to rest."
Yusufa looks back at the circle of dancers by the hearth. "I could—"
"Don't," Prim cuts her off. "It won't work."
Yusufa lowers her head. "I know."
Prim sighs, and tries to shift herself. Yusufa pretends she doesn't see the grimace on her face, the tears in her eyes, how she's biting her lip to keep from crying out. Prim acts like she's tough and above it all, but she's just a girl in over her head; a pampered noble thrust into an unkind world. Yusufa feels sorry for her. Which is silly because the feeling is mutual, and for good reason, because Yusufa's easily the most pathetic creature in Sunshade. Prim at least has her pride, and she's kept it intact. Through every jeer, every strike, every indignity she faces, she holds her head high and pushes onward. Because Prim is different from a lot of the others in Sunshade in another way, too— she chose this.
She wouldn't have needed to if things had been different, of course, but Primrose did come to Sunshade of her own accord. She walked in, asked about Helgenish, and asked how to become a dancer, and then she did that, and she found him. Yusufa doesn't know what the next step of her plan is, but it's not really her business. She hopes it involves breaking that chair he loves so much. Perhaps even kicking it out from under him. Yusufa's fantasized about doing that since the first time she had to clean the stupid thing.
Prim clenches her jaw when the shutters rattle, and reaches up and cups her hands over her ears. Yusufa's been there— noise hurts. She digs her nails into the leather of her bag. More than anything, Yusufa wants to make all the pain go away. She never really understood that feeling until Prim came along, and showed her what it was like.
"Hold on," Yusufa says. She reaches around and picks up the extra blanket she uses, when the temperature drops in the night. She folds it up and rests it over Primrose's head. "That always helps me when I get those headaches."
"Thanks," Primrose mumbles. She moves the edge of the blanket just enough her face pokes out from the other side. "Won't you get cold?"
Yusufa shrugs. "Nah."
"Alright," Primrose says. "But if you do, take the blanket back."
"You need it," she insists. "You're hurt. I've been there. I know."
Primrose is quiet. "It hurts," she finally whispers. "I know I need to rest, but I can't."
Yusufa nods. "I get it," she says. "Come on, rest your head on my lap. I'll keep watch."
"... You promise you'll wake me when it's my turn?" Prim asks.
"Promise," Yusufa says.
So Primrose slowly shifts, keeping the blanket over her ears, until her head's in Yusufa's lap. Yusufa leans against the fabric rack. She wishes her thighs weren't so bony, but it'll have to do. The tension leaves Prim's shoulders in little bits, as she slowly relaxes. Her brown hair spills out over Yusufa's skirt. Yusufa wishes she were softer, that the dorm were quieter, that the world were kinder. She wishes Prim hadn't needed to make the choice she had. She wishes things were different, and better. But for the moment, the sandstorm rages on, and Prim nurses the first of many headaches brought on by her skull against the bricks, and Yusufa is too scrawny for Prim to really be comfortable. She wishes it were better, but really, if Prim is letting herself rest, then it'll do just fine.