Cassiopeia was certainly tall, nearly six feet, and she was also decidedly large -- statuesque, in fact -- of athletic proportions rarely seen in a woman not of the Amazonian warrior caste. Her long limbs were rounded and full, but not visibly muscular, and were devoid of superfluous tissue. Her hands had delicate tapering fingers like those of a pianist, but that she was no musician was readily apparent from the enameled perfection of her elliptical nails.
The hair was thick, of dark mahogany hue, neither straight nor curly nor waved, and did not hang so much as seem to support itself, like a mane, and fell in cascading flounces, spreading out over the shoulders and concealing the ears. Forehead and eyes were harmoniously balanced: the former might have been considered rather too broad but for the latter, which otherwise might have seemed just a bit too widely set. The irises were a soft hazel in color, peppered with green and gold flecks, so that in all but the faintest illumination the eyes appeared to sparkle and dance. In truth, Cassiopeia's eyes were her most attractive feature: they projected a lively and lighthearted curiosity and an innocent openness that was almost beguiling, quite unexpected in a trader known for driving tough bargains.
The straight nose, with finely arched nostrils like little angular wings, was set above generous lips which tended to curl upwards at the corners, like the toes of elves' shoes, whenever Cassiopeia was intent on a task (particularly when concluding a bargain), making her appear to be constantly smiling even when she was not.
With just such a smile, Cassiopeia now surveyed herself in the mirror, not unaware of the highly pleasing effect produced by the living aggregation of the parts and features just now described. She pivoted once to the right, then once to the left, turning her head and casting glances over alternate shoulders to appraise how she appeared from behind.
Satisfied, with only slight reservations (at that moment concerning the length of her hair and a small, coffee-au-lait blemish on her left inner thigh), she put on her underthings, girdle and slip, smoothly pulled on and fastened her stockings and seated herself at the dressing-table, where, with the same curled little smile, she began to apply meticulous makeup. Finishing with her eyebrows, which she carefully penciled, one hand steadying the other, she stood and removed her traveling dress from the clothes tree upon which she had hung it, expertly drew it on over her head without smudging her makeup and did up the closures herself (for she was still unaccustomed to being dressed by her maid). From her closet she selected appropriate pumps and put them on, steadying herself first with one hand on the dressing table, then with the other for the opposite foot. Now, fully dressed, she again briefly engaged in the ritual survey before the tall mirror, pivoting as before and looking over her shoulders, only to discover that the seam of one stocking was slightly awry.
Having straightened the seam (and checked the result over her shoulder again), Cassiopeia re-seated herself at the dressing table. Pulling open various small drawers, she selected earrings, necklace, bracelet and pin from their respective compartments and cases and fastened them on. She now leant much closer to the mirror and rapidly angled her face in several directions to change the perspective, pausing abruptly four or five times to touch up lips, eyes and cheeks with a deft stroke of her little finger stiffly extended. Compressing her lips together and rolling them over her teeth one final time to even her lipstick, she again stood, surveyed herself before the tall mirror and performed the obligatory little tugs, counter-tugs and readjustments of dress and slip without which the ritual would have been incomplete, and, with delicate pats of her fingers, made minute corrections to her already-immaculate coiffure.
She returned to her closet and selected a heavy, full-length fur coat (mink with contasting silver wolf collar and trim), long, black leather gloves lined with sheared beaver (for softness) and a rakish silver wolf hat with cunningly concealed earflaps of fur. She carefully stuffed hat and gloves into a sleeve of the coat, which she draped over her arm, glancing at her wristwatch as she did so with an air of frustrated impatience, as if she were late for an engagement and could not find a cab.
For A Woman Dressed to the Nines with nowhere to go is an impatient creature, and Cassiopeia, now complete (to the nines) in her personal toilet and dress, was eager to depart on her journey without further delay. She rang for Lacerta, who materialized in her usual instantaneous fashion (this time without an audible pop), and, after taking the red leather wallet from the dressing table and handing the fur to Lacerta, Cassiopeia ascended with her to the rooftop, where Auriga and Ara, the two upstairs maids, had just finished stowing all the provisions, luggage and presents in Hermia's holds. To this stowage Lacerta added the fur. Then Cassiopeia entered the dovecote and brought forth Kwethalyn's remaining five pigeons, (and three of her own), as well as feed enough for the journey. Cage in hand, she bade the trio farewell, boarded the gyrocraft, signaled Lacerta to cast off the moorings, and was gone. (Cassiopeia had been so intent upon setting off that she forgot to wonder again about what other odd undergarments Lacerta might be wearing and where in the city the secretary could possibly find them.)
* * * * *
Some two hours later, the lights of New Ladyton having long since faded into the haze far behind her, the Great Northern Sea stretching before her and the Aurora frigidly glimmering just beyond the horizon, Cassiopeia, snug in Hermia's new, heated cabin, slipped the navigational card into Hermia's on-board ordinator and felt the autopilot engage with a slight shudder and a small shift in direction. She switched on a shiny of a Schubertte quintet, turned up the volume just enough to drown out the whine of the gyros, removed her heels, put up her feet and dozed off.
As Hermia shot northward into sub-Arctic night, Cassiopeia dreamt it was summer again, that she and Kwethalyn (radiant and smiling but unaccountably mute, her face all the more expressive in compensation), had just sat down to a connubial breakfast of tropical fruits on a sun-dappled verandah. Birds of rare plumage perched in flowering trees, whose blossoms were wonderfully fragrant, but the birds, too, were mute, and the nearby surf, crashing on pink coral and shooting spray high into the air, made no sound at all....
TO BE CONTINUED...
"Yes, Lacerta," replied Cassiopeia, briskly sweeping with her fingertips the pouches and pieces of parchment in a little heap before her and commencing to twirl one pouch nervously about in her fingers, "I did. Hermia is back from the works and is idling upstairs on the roof; I intend to depart for Unalakleet as soon as possible. I want you to gather together eight days' provisions, suitable winter clothing and other travel necessities and see to the packing and stowage. You may call on Auriga and Ara [the two senior upstairs maids] to help, if you wish. Imperial Weather indicates temperatures down to negative twenty in the area for the next week, at least, so pack accordingly." She twirled the pouch in the opposite direction and glanced up, meeting the secretary's inquisitive gaze.
"Very good, Miss, but, begging your pardon, do you think it wise to effect a departure tonight without first trying out Hermia's new fittings? You had mentioned, if I recall, that the snow-skirt failed at the first testing," said Lacerta, with deferential solicitude. Again up jumped the eyebrows, the eyes widened once more and this time she grew momentarily taller.
"I am touched by your concern, Lacerta," Cassiopeia responded, wondering again about the girl's bandeau and how she could possibly stand it, "But the skirt's been re-designed and I have always staked my life on the skills and good intentions of the engineers at the gyrocraft works. There's not cause to start questioning them now. Just be as quick as you can about it; I'd like to leave within two hours, if not sooner." She dropped the pouch on the desk, picked up one of the stiff parchment messages and began to snap it between her thumb and fingers, as one might idly snap a playing card.
"Very good, Miss, you may consider it as good as done. But may I ask long you intend to be gone?"
"Ah, that is the question, isn't it, Lacerta?" sighed Cassiopeia as she folded and re-folded the bit of parchment with both hands, lowering her face and staring intently down at her busy fingers. She inwardly speculated about what other unusual garments the secretary might be wearing under her beaded dress, but she said, "You have probably guessed that this is no business trip (not at this time of year), but a personal affair involving a particular Amazonian blonde."
Lacerta had early on guessed precisely this, and had been secretly dreading the advent of a second mistress -- a blonde one -- from one day to the next, which would complicate her existence incalculably. For Lacerta, you see, was abjectly terrified of blondes (and had fled her previous situation on account of a particular buxom blonde under-parlor maid named Carina, who had discovered this weakness and tormented her mercilessly), but she blandly replied,
"Oh, really, Miss? I had no idea. I suppose congratulations are in order, then, and may I be the first to convey them to you?" This time the eyebrows stayed up and the eyes held their extra fullness a full five seconds or more.
The folded message suddenly jumped from under Cassiopeia's fingers like a tiddlywink, impinged once on the desk and landed on the carpet at Lacerta's feet. Without removing her eyes from her mistress's, Lacerta bent quickly, retrieved it and expertly flicked it back to Cassiopeia, who, without having to reach, caught it smartly in one hand. She laughed that peculiar, light Novarian laugh that had captivated Kwethalyn so many months ago, but it had no such immediate effect on the secretary, (nor was it intended to), whose face, at the moment, held no expression at all, or, to be more precise, displayed a deliberate and well-practiced blankness.
"No, Lacerta, I think congratulations would be rather premature, or my acceptance of them a bit presumptuous right now, anyway. But I hope you will be able to congratulate me as soon as I return. Now please see to Hermia and the packing," Cassiopeia replied.
"Very good, Miss. And good luck, Miss," said Lacerta in a studied deadpan as she vanished into thin air with a faint, audible pop, but not before the eyebrows had jumped and the eyes had widened one final time.
Cassiopeia wondered whether Lacerta might be unhappy in her position, but dismissed the idea, tossed the folded bit of parchment onto the little heap and pulled open a heavy file drawer in the desk, withdrawing a folder of navigational charts marked, "Northern Amazonia." From this folder she extracted a sheaf of thin, flexible metallic plates with rounded corners, roughly five by seven inches and a shimmering, silvery-green in color, each bearing an intricate pattern of extremely fine pentagonal punch holes. These were Hermia's navigational cards; Cassiopeia flipped through them, selected the one imprinted "Unalakleet: Winter Route" and slipped it into a red Morocco leather wallet clearly made for the purpose.
Pushing back her chair, Cassiopeia arose and passed out of her study into her dressing room, carrying the wallet, which she placed on the polished surface of an ornate, mirrored Louise Quatorze dressing-table, but she did not yet sit down, as she was still in her city clothes. These she quickly undid and stepped out of in two or three shakes, leaving them in a rippled heap on the floor; the diaphanous Novarian garments, both inner and outer, shimmered as they settled and she stepped over them.
Opening an armoire of the same vintage, Cassiopeia selected a closely-fitting traveling frock of heavy silk crepe de chine in navy with French blue trim, which she held up before herself for a moment or two, like a paper doll's outfit, to assess its appearance, then, having certified it as fairly reflecting her mood, hung it on a dressing stand beside a tall, tripartite mirrored screen. She returned to the armoire, and from its compartments withdrew underthings harmonious in fabric, texture and color (a bandeau not among them), as well a pair of New Lady stockings, all of which she let spill from her fingers, like quicksilver, onto the dressing-bench placed before the mirrors.
Confident that Lacerta would have everything in train in good time, Cassiopeia proceeded to take a leisurely bath, after which she returned to her dressing room, wearing one towel and drying herself behind the ears with another. Letting both drop to the floor, she stood, intent and entire, before the full-length mirrored screen, poised to engage in a feminine ritual at least as ancient as the first reflective surface ever discovered by Maid.
TO BE CONTINUED...
And as for the Amazonian love story--simply wonderful. I am all ears (or should that be eyes?) for the next installment!
But the same lambent certainty she had felt when she finished reading Nuiqsala's original letter once again coursed through her veins, utterly banishing the day's petty annoyances. Whereas the earlier feeling had been tempered by no small measure of alarm for Kwethalyn's safety, this time it was mingled instead with a burning and urgent desire to be with the Amazonian maiden now, to protect and possess her now, to receive her tender kisses and caresses now, to merge souls with her now, to ... But enough: beyond this, even a Narrator may not go.
Cassiopeia writhed spasmodically from toes to crown in a quick, shiver-like motion, and to recover, firmly ran her palms, once, down along the tops of her thighs, then heaved an audible sigh and crossed her legs tightly. Tilting back in her chair and supporting her elbow with one hand while she slowly stroked her lower lip with the other, gently pinching it at each stroke's apex, she gazed up at the ceiling.
Cassiopeia stared hard and long at the blank white expanse and reflected upon the events of the last several days. The physical (and spiritual) urgency of her desire made reflection a bit of a problem, yet she managed to reason quite clearly nonetheless. She was no longer seriously worried about Kwethalyn's health, for she correctly divined that Nuiqsala would never have permitted the "Yes!" to be sent had she still held real doubts regarding her daughter's recovery, just as now she knew absolutely that Nuiqsala trusted her, that her marriage proposal (which she now intended to deliver in person) was as good as accepted, and that the certificates, affidavits, forms, permits, statements, notarized lumierocopies, requisitions and licenses (all in quintuplicate) obtained at such nettlesome cost, though they would be scrutinized and upon which she would doubtless be minutely examined, were really a formality, but an indispensable one.
Without having to guess, Cassiopeia knew that more formalities would be in the offing, and that a full-press Amazonian courtship, exacting in all its punctilious and reverential detail, would be expected once the banns had been read in Unalakleet's tiny chapel, though Cassiopeia hoped for some dispensation in respect to such a courtship's duration. She had heard tell of Amazonian courtships lasting as long as seven years at the whim of a prospective bride's brunette mother, and silently prayed to Dea hers might be brief, as any period longer than just a few incinerative weeks would be impossible for her to endure. For Cassiopeia's inner fire now burned at white heat and could not be quenched, even slightly, without full and unconditional possession of Kwethalyn, the sooner, the better.
Cassiopeia also knew that the only way to mitigate the searing heat of this fire was to set her travel preparations into high gear immediately or else down several snifters of Arcadian brandy in rapid succession. As she intended to depart on her journey that very night (the thought of sleep never having entered her mind), Cassiopeia rejected the latter course. With sudden resolve, she uncrossed her legs, leant forward and rang for Lacerta, who materialized before her almost instantly
Cassiopeia's personal secretary, standing before her mistress's desk, hands deferentially clasped behind her back and inclining herself slightly forward from the waist in an abbreviated and businesslike bow, was a compact and clear-eyed brunette, of no more than twenty-two or twenty-three years, who had a penchant for Vintessian clothes. (Of all of Cassiopeia's domestic staff, Lacerta alone was allowed to choose her own wardrobe.) Lacerta wor e her dark hair short in a classic western Vintessian bob and was at this moment clad in a short black Vintessian dress, modestly beaded, fitting loosely about the shoulders and bosom; as she bowed she revealed the bandeau she always favored in lieu of a brassiere. A bandeau, in fact, suited Lacerta's neat, restrained appearance and crisp manner remarkably well. Cassiopeia on several occasions had meant to ask the secretary whether it didn't hurt and pinch after a long day (for the secretary was by no means flat-chested), but the time never seemed quite right for such a question, and now was clearly not the proper time, either, but the question crossed her mind nonetheless.
"You rang, Miss?" Lacerta intoned, raising her eyes and peering out, almost brazenly (but not quite), from beneath her perfect bob.
TO BE CONTINUED...
Some one has described Aristasia as "one long conversation". Well, Aphrodite is rather like that. If you want to catch up on the conversation so far, the Archive is the place to do it.