Only Dreaming

Part 7 of The New Goddess

In truth, I feel nothing toward Princess Canina, despite the effort I put into obtaining a position of service within the palace and the long years I labored to earn this position as her personal attendant.

I’m sure I’ve met her before while performing my duties, but in our brief encounters she has left me with no impression of her character that I can recall. Not that it matters. I am not here because I have any particular love of the royal family. I have a Plan, and that Plan requires me to earn the confidence of the princess.

“Wow. My first real servant.” She giggles with a giddiness that seems rather childish for a young woman her age, then clasps her hands in prayer. “Thank you, Goddess, for the blessings you bestow on me.”

Ugh. Another one of those extremely pious types, ready to thank their holy whatever for every breath they take. You’ll never catch me doing that.

“Do you… not believe in Goddess, Miss Velle?”

I curse internally. How amateurish of me to wear my feelings on my face. I fix myself, putting together an apologetic-enough smile and attempting to deflect the conversation. “Please, Your Grace, such address is unnecessary for your personal maid when it’s just the two of us. Just Velle will do.” Personal maid. Frankly my title should be—

Ah! A sudden blinding headache cuts that thought off abruptly, and I fail to stop myself from flinching away and clutching my head in my hands. What is wrong with me today? I am making a terrible first impression here and putting the Plan in jeopardy. I need to do damage control.

“My… apologies… Princess Canina.” The headache slowly fades, and I regain my grip on myself.

“Shh, it’s okay, Velle.” She wraps her arms around me in a strong hug that wildly violates my expectations of royal decorum. “You never have to apologize for getting headaches, no matter how bad they get, okay? It happens to me too, so I promise you’re talking to someone who understands.”

No, do not offer me pity, lest it inspire the same from me. Pity is a weakness. It inspires me to take unnecessary risks. I learned that the hard—

Another swell of pain forces me to divert from that thought.

“I will not allow my condition to interfere with my duties, Canina. I swear it.”

“Will you swear to Goddess?”

“I will swear it to you.”

“Hmm…” Her lips tighten in displeasure. “I think it would be best for you to not forget to address me with the proper courtesy, Velle.”

It was a mistake to interpret her over-familiar gesture as an invitation to reciprocate the omission of titles in private conversation. Or, just as likely, she really can’t handle any perceived disrespect toward her awful religion. In terms of winning her trust, I’ve managed one step forward and two steps back. I may have to re-evaluate the cost of my pride.

“Yes, Princess Canina. It won’t happen again.”

My sleep lately comes in fitful, short bursts punctuated in intervals by white-hot bursts of agony. The headaches torment me all night, and every time I close my eyes it feels like something is trying to come to life inside me. Whatever it is, it threatens to split my head open completely.

When sunrise mercifully arrives, I awaken to a bed drenched in sweat and have to concentrate to force my own hands to release their white-knuckle grip on my soaked sheets.

Thus dawns another day as my princess’s personal attendant and housemaid.

I’ve grown accustomed to the daily routine. After bringing Her Highness breakfast, I help her dress. She solicits my opinion on matters of aesthetic far more than I consider reasonable, but I like to believe I have an eye for style, if not quite the same aesthetic sensibilities as Princess Canina.

Though bashful at first, I am successful at getting her to relax around me over time. Flattery works well, and she practically melts when I encourage her vanity and suggest outfits that allow her to flaunt her figure. Not that her vanity needs much encouragement, as often as she distracts herself with lingering stares toward the grand mirror that dominates her room. Still, it’s a vice I approve of even if it means my main duties necessarily include cleaning her favorite mirror several times a day.

I accompany her on two of her three daily visits to the shrine where the princess makes her religious obeisances and mumbles prayers to the Great Whore In The Sky. I kneel with her, as she requires of me, but I keep my vitriolic prayers inside my head. The third time each day that she observes her prayers, it is a “private” religious rite, and I am grateful for the reprieve.

“Goddess bless you on this fine day, Madame Velle! Might I say that you look cute as always in that uniform of yours?”

I am content with the fact that most other servants of the house stay out of my way, but there is one lone exception.

“Jester.” I turn primly and glare daggers at the fool. “Every day I am disappointed anew to discover that you have not yet broken your neck performing one of those fanciful tumbles you favor.”

The thing before me offers a too-wide grin filled with teeth that would be more at home in an eel’s mouth than a person’s. Two of its arms clutch its chest as though heartbroken. Two more assist in its pantomime of a scandalized faint, the back of one hand to its forehead with another cast dramatically in the air.

“You wound me, Madame!” it cries out before cracking up in a fit of giggles.

Naturally, I am unamused. Once day I must find an opportunity to poison this awful creature. “Somehow I doubt you feel as insulted by my words as I do yours. I shall have to work harder until you find yourself wounded in truth.”

“You won’t believe me, but I do look forward to that day, my dear.”

I am fortunate that the princess finds amusement in my animosity toward her jester. If I had to feign politeness toward this thing, I might just be tempted to give up on the Plan altogether and quit the palace.

No, no. I would put up with quite a bit to see this through. My life’s work hinges on building a close relationship with Princess Canina. I would, however, prefer not to test my willpower unnecessarily.

“Jackie!” A shout from behind me interrupts our meaningless standoff. My Lady throws herself at the detestable jester, catching the creature in an overjoyed hug that strikes me as deeply excessive given they last ran into each other no more than five days ago.

“Thank the Goddess that She has seen fit to have our paths cross,” the thing replies with almost-human warmth. It lowers its voice as to speak privately with the princess, though not so low my ears fail to hear. “How is everything going, Nina?”

She murmurs something in response that I don’t make out, and all I catch from “Jackie” afterward is “…feathers at first for the whole bird theme, but then I changed my…”

The sheer familiarity between them is unnerving. Sharing pet names and secrets, the two wrapped in each other’s arms, one would be forgiven for assuming they have some sort of romantic connection despite the incongruity of the spectacle. As her hand falls to its thigh, even I begin to wonder if it’s not me who has the wrong idea.

“Your legs!” Princess Canina gasps, pulling away from their hug to examine the place she just touched. “They really aren’t leggings at all, but…?”

“That’s it! You found it. My most recent blessing from the Goddess! I decided to have my role as Jester carved into my body, and so She did!” The jester cavorts in a small circle. “Goddess, it hurt so much.”

Sure enough, casting a glance downward reveals that the diamond pattern on those legs are just its bare legs. Tattooed, maybe? No, the colors catch the light and reveal a certain glossy texture that resembles serpentine scales somehow. But if those aren’t pants, then… there really is nothing between the creature’s legs. Completely blank. I would be as fascinated as the princess running her hands along its body if not for my intense distaste for both this jester-thing and the goddess that so blesses it.

I look away, unable to stomach the scene any longer. I need only distance my mind from my surroundings and wait for the remainder of the day to pass, performing my duties with mechanical dispassion.

In dreams I watch myself laboring in an almost-familiar setting, casting glances toward myself in intermittent intervals. “Not ready yet,” I tell myself. A gesture from myself banishes me from sleep.

I awaken in pain as always.

“Why do you hate Goddess so?”

Canina seems unusually lost in thought this morning. Her moods can be unpredictable in the best of times, and I fear this may become an especially volatile day. Best to choose my words carefully, then.

“How much do you know of my life before I joined your household, Your Highness?” I know the answer, I just need a moment to think.

“Velle, I know nothing about you except that you once…” She stops herself abruptly. “I mean, you haven’t said much about yourself.”

What was she about to say? No, not important. How should I respond? Revealing some of myself judiciously might make for an opportunity to bond and build trust.

“I have had to learn self-sufficiency from a younger age than most, My Lady.” Lies are wonderful tools, but the closer one sticks to the truth, the easier one’s own stories are to remember. “Everything I have achieved for myself,” a headache threatens to derail me if I consider the details too closely, “I have had to strive most strenuously for.”

“Nobody ever helped you?”

“No. Many got in my way. I was hated for my intelligence, for my interests, for my gender, for my appearance. I had to fight tooth and nail for everything.

Canina considers this for a moment. “Gender, yes, I know the king is… that way with women. But why would anyone hate you for being smart?”

“Ego, mostly. Adults hate to be outdone by a child. The old and wise cannot tolerate a novice who accomplishes what they have dismissed as impossible.” I exhale sharply as the pressure in my skull increases.

“Didn’t you have friends, though? Someone who was on your side?”

“Friends of a sort. There were plenty of people whose company I enjoyed now and then. Many of them offered help when I could have used it, but here’s something I learned at a young age: people love to offer help. It feels good to promise something nice. You get to feel like a good friend just for making the offer.”

“But you’re saying they lied.”

I bark a bitter laugh. “That’s the funny thing. I guarantee most of them didn’t think they were lying. They meant every word! Promises don’t give you those warm feelings unless you earnestly believe your own good intentions. It’s just that when it comes time to follow through, people realize they have higher priorities. Another lesson I learned: it’s a sign of a poor friend if you don’t forgive them for having better things to do than sticking to their commitments. A terrible cruelty it is to hold someone to their word.”

“So you don’t want to trust your fate to a higher power either. You have no more trust to offer.”

I grunt an affirmative through pain I fail to conceal. The princess notices.

“I’m sorry,” she offers in a quiet voice. “If those are Bad Memories for your headaches, we should change the subject. I think I understand you a little better, at least.”

I nod in gratitude and shove my own history to the back of my mind.

My Lady claps her hands together with a sudden, wide-eyed smile. “I have an idea! We should have a day all about you. And that’s not a promise for the future, we’ll do it today.

“My Lady?”

Before I can object, Canina drags me to her ludicrous walk-in closet and tears through the racks in a frenzy. “No, no, not that one, maybe, maybe not, ah!”

With a tug, she extracts an elegant dress of shimmering black fabric and thrusts it toward me. “This one. It suits you perfectly, don’t you think?” I stammer in confusion, but before I can assemble a coherent response I see that she’s moved on, she’s somehow found an extra maid uniform and in the blink of an eye has donned the thing. “Today you get to be the lady, and I’ll play the role of maid. How’s that sound?”

It sounds like a violation of every courtly norm. It mocks royalty itself, spits on the court as an institution, and disgraces her title. It would drive the king mad if he found out, though he lives in another palace altogether. Yes, I can’t help but admit I love everything about this idea. Besides, anything that helps me grow closer to the princess serves my plans well.

Canina responds to my grin of approval with eagerness. “Now let’s get you dressed!”

Too late, I realize my error. She intends to help me change the way I do for her. “I would prefer privacy if I may, Princess Canina.”

“Nope! You’ve seen almost every part of me by now. It is both a maid’s duty and privilege to admire her lady’s figure while helping her dress. Now come here.”

Hardly a role reversal at all, I remain entirely at My Lady’s mercy, it would seem. With resignation, I brace for what must follow. My uniform comes off with suspiciously practiced motions, and before I have time to brace myself, I am exposed before a young woman who freezes in shock, staring at my body.

“Please let me explain—”

“You’re like me,” the princess whispers.

I startle. “I’m sorry?”

“You have a… man’s organ, like I once…”

“It’s not a man’s organ, it’s my organ.” Too firm. This could go badly very easily if I’m not extremely delicate. “And I promise you, My Lady, I am still a woman and still your maid.”

“No.” Her eyes well up with tears, and she embraces me in the same way she did after discovering we share the same headaches. “Not my maid.” She moves to take my hand in hers and places a dainty kiss on my fingers. “Today you are my Lady Velle.”

We visit the shrine. Of course we visit that damned shrine. Canina begged and pleaded until I agreed—which I did immediately because I know which of us is still truly in charge—and so we kneel as usual before the statue of the goddess she worships. Something about even that statue unsettles me, as though I ought to know more than I do about the figure it represents. Worse, by some trick of the light it feels like I catch it moving out of the corner of my eye. Of course, whenever I look directly at the thing, it remains the same as ever.

“Goddess, thank You for giving me Velle. She is absolutely perfect, and I know that You will only help her become more perfect once she accepts Your love. I pray for Your guidance to show me how I may lead her to Your holy light.”

I grit my teeth and endure. That Canina accepts me so readily is remarkably good fortune, and I will not throw such a stroke of luck away in a fit of petulance.

“Blessings of the Goddess to you both!” As we leave the shrine, we are accosted by that blasted creature again.

Yet before I can compose my retort, the princess speaks for me. “You will have to excuse us. My Lady does not approve of your antics, and it is my duty to dismiss you from her sight.”

The jester’s eyes flick between the two of us as it parses the role reversal on display. “But of course! Fool that I am, I would be more foolish yet if I displeased a woman of such high standing as Lady Velle. Worse, it would be terribly crass for me to deny a request from a maid as fine as yourself.” It winks at Canina, who breaks character with a giggle.

Content to have played its role in this game, the jester departs.

“Well done, Canina. You serve your lady well.” The princess blushes, wiggling her hips in obvious pleasure. I get the impression she’s enjoying this roleplay more than I am.

After this detour, however, I find myself at a loss for how to proceed. I’ve grown accustomed to the way my daily routine revolves around the princess’s whims, and I hardly know what to do with such leisure time. The most important thing at the moment is the Plan, but for that I need to continue building trust with Canina.

“As my housemaid, I would have you do something more for me.” She perks up, eager to be given an official task. “Plan something amusing we can do together.”

My play-maid’s eyes light up as though she were waiting for exactly this invitation. “With pleasure, My Lady. If you will follow me, I have just the idea.” With a spirited twirl that emphasizes the motion of her skirt, she leads me through palace hallways on a familiar journey back to her chambers.