“It’s exactly what everyone is wearing on Baltion,” the wardrobe girl assured Mordion and smiled at him, poorly hiding the laughter in her eyes.
She always did smile at him. Probably she smiled like that at everyone. It wasn’t as though he did anything special to earn that look from her. Still, when no-one else smiled at you ever it was worth noting.
Of course, he knew what the joke was. He very much doubted that particular shade of neon pink was the height of fashion anywhere in the universe, Baltion included, just as the skin-tight black trousers she’d offered last time did very little to make him fit in on Triolly. As the Reigner’s loyal Servant he should have said so. For her own safety, he should have told her that the Reigners had no sense of humour. But she smiled at him, full of laughter rather than the anxious flinching grins most people offered him, and he found himself quite unable to deal with her as sternly as he should even to protect her from herself. The most he could do was adopt a neutral expression and pretend not to understand the joke.
But the trousers. Good lord, but they were awful, pink with little orange frills around the hems. Mordion stared at them, feeling his lips starting to twitch at the corners. He tried to stifle it, waiting resignedly for the wave of queasiness which came whenever any humorous situation presented itself.
It didn’t come. And without that outside influence squashing any semblance of a good mood, holding it in was suddenly impossible. Mordion didn’t turn his face away quickly enough to disguise his sudden snort of laughter. The shocked expression on the wardrobe girl’s face did nothing to help him restrain himself, and Mordion had to clutch at the clothes rail to hold himself up as a wave of laughter seemed to take over his body.
There was a moment where he thought the wardrobe girl was about to turn and run. “You know, ” she said, a little indignant and a lot scared that her private joke wasn’t as private as she thought it was. Then as his laughter showed no signs of abating she started to giggle too; nervously at first and then whole-heartedly.
Smiling felt painful and unfamiliar, as though fighting against muscles which hadn’t been used for a long time. “It was difficult not to,” he said, when he had enough air to breathe again. “You haven’t exactly been subtle about it.”
She was still flushed with laughter, but there was embarrassment there now too. “How long have you known?” she demanded. “Why—why didn’t you just say instead of letting me dress you in those things?”
“You seemed happy.” It was the easiest answer to give, and held enough truth for Mordion to be comfortable giving it. She had seemed to derive a great deal of pleasure from presenting him with gradually more absurd outfits, and it wasn’t often that Mordion was allowed to watch someone taking that much enjoyment out of anything. Allowing himself to be very stupid about what he should be wearing had allowed it to continue. “It seemed a shame to spoil it.”
“Do the Reigners know?” She was anxious again for a moment, belatedly worried about consequences for her silliness.
He did not tell her that had he been the creature people thought he was then her worry would have been too little too late. “Not from me.” It didn’t mean that they didn’t know; Mordion had long ago learned that there was no part of his life he could think of as private. But he hadn’t betrayed her in such a way, nor would he.
Truth was that he never betrayed anyone in such a way, not willingly. There were a number of Sector Controllers who thought the Reigners’ Servant very stupid for the number of violations he inexplicably failed to see when passing through.
His reassurance didn’t remove the worry from her face so he added, “If they haven’t acted on it now, the likelihood is that even if they do know, they aren’t going to.” It wasn’t quite true; but he suspected that any vengeance for badly chosen clothes would be more intended to hurt Mordion than it was to discipline a wardrobe girl. The only way to deal with possibilities like that however was to not think about them. If he thought too long about the possibility of being given the sign for anyone he remotely liked, Mordion suspected he would lose what sanity he had left.
Sanity was brief genuine smiles when people forgot he was the Servant, dancing girls as though he might be any other diplomat, and the happiness people had when they thought he wasn’t looking. It wasn’t much of a life raft, but he clung to it regardless.
Her face cleared, and she grinned again. “I’ll stop now anyway. There’s not much point in doing it if you know what I’m doing.”
“No, don’t stop!” He couldn’t hide the dismay from his tone at that thought, at the idea of losing these brief moments of foolishness. She looked taken aback and Mordion found himself floundering. “I like the way it makes you laugh,” he offered awkwardly.
She went pink; surprised and pleased. “I thought you were going to tell me how dangerous it is.”
Smiling at him was dangerous; talking to him about anything not strictly related to his work was even more dangerous. Picking slightly odd clothes to dress him in was almost irrelevant when contrasted the consequences that existed in potentia for him in any given moment. Even allowing this conversation to continue was insanely selfish, and yet Mordion couldn’t bring himself to bring it to an end. He shrugged slightly, glancing again at the outfit she had offered him.
“I’m sure that if you’re asked you can find a cube of someone wearing something similar?” he offered.
The girl stared at him and then started to giggle again. “You’re not actually going to wear it?”
“Didn’t you intend me to?” He couldn’t laugh when he was travelling for the Reigners; the thought was usually enough to make him want to vomit. Still, if he wore an outfit like that he could at least be laughing on the inside. The thought sent an unfamiliar little tendril of warmth through him. Mordion thought it might be actual happiness.
“Well, yes, but…” She was still laughing, but it was her turn to look a little flustered. “That was when I wanted you to look stupid. You don’t have to if you don’t want to. I mean, you can, but—“
“Do you always try to make people look stupid?” Mordion asked frankly, genuinely curious as to the answer. A glimpse of a life where you could make fun of people was like a look at a foreign land over a far ocean.
“Mostly,” she admitted. “Within the bounds of what I think they’ll accept. It’s not like I could make most of them look fantastic anyway. We don’t get a great selection of clothes down here – it’s all odd colours, or strange costumes, or tartan. I can either put it together or try to do a good job really badly or do a really terrific attempt at doing a bad job. You’d be surprised how few people noticed the difference.”
He waved his hand over the trousers. “You don’t think they’d notice this?”
“I might have been seeing how far I could go,” she confessed cheerfully. “Most people don’t need to come back as often as you do. It was hard not to see how far I could push.”
Mordion thought he understood. “And last week’s trousers?” They had been black, and so tight he had thought that perhaps she had supplied the wrong size. Even for her it had seemed an odd choice; mostly the clothes she offered were odd-looking but functional.
Now she blushed, unable to meet his eye as she turned a deep red. “I might just have wanted to see how they looked on you.”
He’d seen too much to be innocent or naïve, but it still took a moment to process what that actually meant and he felt his own face heat to match hers. Now there were two of them, both blushing, both unable to quite look at each other. He resisted the urge to run away; if he ran away now he might never manage to go back.
“Whatever you find me, I’ll wear,” he offered instead, hoping for another of those smiles.
He got one, and he could see her eyes light up with possibilities as she considered him. “You might not want to offer that,” she said, apparently feeling he needed that much of a warning. “I can put together some strange offerings.”
In answer he picked up the edge of his cloak and held it out to her. “Compared with this?”
Most people shuddered and looked away rather than even glimpse the deep blood-red of the material. It was too sharp a reminder of what a Servant did. She laughed though and he felt himself grinning back again, ridiculous and happy because someone was laughing with him and no-one ever did that. “Point taken. All right. You can be my new clothes horse.”
“I’d like that,” he said sincerely, still beaming at her. It felt strange and unfamiliar and he didn’t want it to ever stop.
“I’m Vierran,” she offered, and saw him hesitate. “You have to tell me your name sometime you know. I can’t just go thinking of you as the Servant.”
“I… can’t,” he said apologetically, and allowed her to draw her own conclusions. Easier for her to think it was simply forbidden than to explain how his throat closed up at the thought of speaking it aloud.
Vierran looked intrigued rather than pitying. “A mystery! I’ll find out, you know,” she boasted. “Someone somewhere will know. I’ll work it out.”
He should have told her not to. He should have told her that any rebellion against the Reigners was both doomed and stupid, that she wouldn’t just die but they would order him to do it and he would because the other option was too horrible to contemplate. He should have stopped her then, and been careful not to associate with her too closely from then onwards.
Caught up in the beauty of her smile, Mordion somehow found the strength to say nothing at all.