Automaton-Marcus led us through the jumble of manicured coral. After what seemed like an eternity, we emerged into a small corridor lit by crystalline lights. Miriam's plump body blocked most of the view, so I couldn't see what was ahead, but the smell confirmed my suspicions. The banquet hall was swathed in lush curtains and gilded balustrades, with a magnificent crystal window, lending the room a panorama view of the city. Quietly my little band meandered around the massive, pearlescent table which was laden with all manners of delicacies. It seemed the meal had reached the desserts; elementals floated gracefully to deliver platters full of little cakes, custards, pies, jellies, pastries and even a literal ice-cream boat; a to-scale galleon sculpted from marbled gelato, with sails made from spun sugar, nestled in a bath of candied fruit. Although one end of the table clanged their mugs of beer together with jolly cries, the other daintily touched glasses of sparkling champagne and whispered private pleasantries to each other. It was a gathering of two families; both of noble rank, but from two different regions: the Mediterranean and the Arctic seas. According to the brief, during the Gathering representatives of the seven seas had to meet in Amphirite. No wonder why the port was so crowded; citizens often came to witness the promenades of monarchs and ambassadors who flocked to the city in a time like this. We circled around this room, exiting through a hidden door behind the curtains. Down a set of spiral stairs, into the icy dark. It was heavy, but the cloak wasn't particularly warm, so my breath began to cloud. Lower and lower and lower and lower the descent became. "Where are we going?" I asked, well aware of how vulnerable my voice sounded. "You have eyes, Necromica. You'll see." Automaton Marcus drawled in a mild tone. The answer came soon enough. The staircase ended abruptly, and I stumbled into Miriam, who signed and helped me regain my balance. "What is with you, child? Last time I saw, you were more graceful than a cat!" "I feel heavy," I murmured as my cold hands drew the cloak tighter around me. "What am I to do when I get to my concubine residence? There was nothing like this in my brief." Miriam pursed her blue lips, and patted my back in an attempt to console me while Marcus tried to find a key in his massive loop of trinkets for a hatch in the floor. God, the palace was more like a maze than the Maze itself. "Girl, we aren't taking you to your quarters. You are to present yourself to the royal family first. They'll be the ones who decide where you'll live. After all, concubines are ranked by favor, right?" I nodded drowsily, and Miriam's eyes widened in alarm. "Rose, where is the wig?" Dazed, I reached a hand up to touch my head, and for the first time I felt a twinge of surprise. Instead of long, silky hair my fingertips brushed stubbly scalp. To hell with 'staying low'. Without my disguise, I'd have to go out there as myself. A rebel in the groomed court.
After an eternity of fumbling, Marcus finally got the hatch open, and motioned for me to jump in. "This hatch leads to the main waiting room." said Miriam. "Once you land, join the other concubines. Go with the flow, alright? When they call your name, come with the guards. Don't pay attention to the others. It'll only rile them up more, got it?" "I know, Mir. I'm not a child." I brushed her fussing hands off my head. Miriam had tried to arrange what was left of my hair into a single braid that made my mousy hair pouf up; which only made me look less noble, and more edgy. Oddly, my hair worked with the flimsy dress. We were a direct contrast: steel and silk, all in one package. While I was not a pageant girl, the knowledge of my unique appearance made me swell up in pride, and I smiled, a fox's smile. I may have an edge after all. "Back it up, Marcus. I'm ready."