by Rachael Haring


The stairway leading up to the attic of the Dragon Scale Inn was steep and shadowed, barely wider than Alain's shoulders. He raised his lantern and watched each sagging step, determined not to stumble in his ascent.

He had been up these stairs before, many times. The Dragon Scale had been his home for ten years, ever since he was born, and he knew every inch of its musty hallways, rickety staircases, and simple inn rooms. Still, the gloom which danced at the edges of his meager lantern-light never failed to hurry his heartbeat just a little.

Alain emerged into the cool, musty air of the storage attic, and he gently shut the door behind him. The room was long and low-cielinged, cluttered with a startling array of boxes, chests, old furniture, and moth-chewed sheets. The last rays of dusk glowed beyond a small, round window set into the far wall, its muted daylight casting everything in sleepy, silver-edged blues.

An unexpected flash of movement caught Alain's attention, and he whirled to face it, his heart leaping painfully upward. A child-like figure stood before him, staring at him with equal surprise; after a second of confusion, Alain realized that the figure was only an image of himself, reflected in a full-length mirror.

Alain breathed out with sheepish relief. He stepped closer to the mirror and studied the details of his own reflection: the shine of his straight, black hair, the delicate lines of his face, the neat fit of his simple, carefully-patched tunic and breeches.

As always, the reflection simply didn't look...right. He couldn't explain it, not even to himself, but mirrors never seemed to show what he truly looked like. He always felt as if there was something missing, something wrong. His clothes, while fairly clean, covered the lines of his body in unnatural angles and too-somber colors. He ached to be rid of their restricting laces and dark fabrics, but he wasn't exactly sure what he would replace them with. Perhaps something brighter or softer, something that reminded him of springtime...

The wistful turn of his thoughts surprised him, and he shook his head as if to clear it. He backed away from the mirror and looked around the attic, his eyes gradually regaining their focus as he struggled to remember his assignment.

Now, what was it I was supposed to find up here? he asked himself, and he walked to the conglomerations of half-covered boxes and wooden chests. Something on this side...with the linens. Ahh, now I remember. Father asked me to get one of the red tablecloths from our chest.

Alain dropped to his knees in front of the largest chest and placed the flickering lantern on the floorboards. The chest's clasps were not too badly rusted, and they popped open with a minimum of fuss; Alain raised the heavy lid with a grunt and peered inside. Piles of neatly folded cloth rested within, and Alain worked his hands between each layer, gently pulling them apart in his search. His fingers slid between beige linens, rough canvases, a few woven blankets, and then brushed against an entirely different and thoroughly intriguing fabric.

Alain pulled the bundle of lilac-colored satin from its buried rest. The fabric was incredibly cool and smooth against his hands, and it smelled of faint, innocent perfumes; a crumpled line of lace edged its bottom, and emerald leaves decorated the sides.

Insatiably curious and more than a little enchanted, Alain rose to his feet and shook out the bundle's folds. Within seconds, he realized that he held an old but elegantly simple girl's dress. A small tag was sewn into the side of the neckline, and he looked closer at its tiny embroidery.

"Madelene," Alain whispered aloud as his eyes danced over the name. His breath caught in his throat as the significance of the name came sharply into focus. "That's Mother! This is Mother's dress."

His heart thumping hard and fast, Alain carried the dress back to the mirror and once again stared at his reflection. His hands quivered as he held the dress before his body and compared his own arms to the pastel sleeves; the fabric's cut was exactly his size, almost as if it had been tailored just for him.

Impulsively, without waiting for the absurdity of the moment to catch up with his swirling thoughts, Alain swiftly unlaced the points of his tunic and yanked it over his head. He tossed the unflattering garb to the dusty floor and eagerly pulled his mother's old dress onto his slim body.

Finally, after a moment of hasty struggle, Alain looked into the mirror and regarded his new reflection with bright, fervent eyes. The fine lavender fabric of the dress' bodice was pleasantly snug against his chest but not at all limiting, and the sleeves ended in graceful flourishes at his wrists. The skirt covered his breeches in flowing pastel, its embroidered hem-line just barely brushing the floorboards.

Alain smiled with giddy approval, then raised one thin-fingered hand and idly toyed with the ends of his hair. His father had recently been saying that it was in want of cutting, but now more than ever, Alain wanted it to grow longer. He couldn't help thinking how nice it would look if it were allowed to contrast this dress, to spill over his shoulders with smooth darkness. And his ears—perhaps they would benefit from tiny silver hoops, or perhaps twin crystals like the ones he had seen at the jewelry stand at market the other day...

"Alain, boy?" called a hoarse, familiar voice from the base of the attic stairs, and Alain jumped with surprise. "Are ye all right up there? Did ye find my tablecloth or no?"

"Yes, Father, I'm coming," the boy called back, his hands frantically reaching to pull the dress over his head. For a terrible, panic-filled moment, the bodice's buttons stuck, but then the satin slid from his body, and he hurriedly folded its soft weight into a bundle. He ran to the still- open chest and reluctantly placed the dress beneath the other fabrics, then quickly found the desired tablecloth from the pile.

With a softly lamenting creak, the chest's lid fell shut, and Alain busied himself with re- donning his old, threadbare tunic. He heard his father's footsteps mounting the first few stairs, and after a deep, settling breath, he calmly walked to the doorway, tablecloth in hand.

"Aye, there's the one," Martyn nodded easily, and he turned around to descend the stairs ahead of his son. "Ye were gone so long, boy, I thought mayhap ye lost somethin' up there."

Alain closed the attic door behind him, his lips still curved in a slight smile, his mind awash with completion and long-awaited comfort.

No, Father, he thought. I didn't lose anything. I found something.

© 2001 Rachael M. Haring