The evenness of her own voice surprised her. “I was told to find something to wear.”
“The giant,” several people said in unison and the cafe laughed.
Daffodil grinned when she realized that everyone here had probably gone through the same things she had. It made it easier for her to descend a step and take Aster’s hand. The sensation was lovely. The warmth of his fingers, the implied strength in them, the fascinating animation of them as they entwined with her own when she reached his level and stood on the cafe floor.
“I think you’ll find,” Aster said, “that clothes are optional. In fact it’s very likely that there are some of us naked this very minute right here in the Wild Rose’s Main Room!”
There was a group gasp of mock indignation and some lascivious giggles.
“And if there aren’t, there should be,” Aster continued, more to her than to the crowd. Then more loudly, “Alright, everyone, back to work. Eat! Drink! The new flower’s mine for awhile.”
He led her out between the clusters of seated patrons. The rumble of conversation began again around them, though there were also those who stared appraisingly as Daffodil passed, or nodded and smiled. She clutched instinctively at Aster’s hand, unused to the nearness of so many lively, breathing creatures.
“I think I would like to put some clothes on,” she said, hoping she sounded less vulnerable than she felt.
He bent toward her as they walked and that voice so close to her ear made the roof of her mouth feel dry. His hand supporting her elbow came right on time as she veered slightly.
“We will be seated and secluded momentarily, my blossom. And please, rest assured that should you collapse while alone with me I will limit my activities to calling for help and then gazing at you adoringly.” He smiled in a manner that was both wolfish and completely reassuring.
As promised, they turned a corner and were out of the Main Room and into a wide hallway. There was a thick, crimson-purple carpet on the floor and for a moment Daffodil’s feet were reminded of the soft spring of the grass outside. She wondered briefly if the storm was over or if it had even begun yet. Time had never really meant anything to her except the slow alternation of sun and moon. Here it seemed to move much faster as if the number of people involved increased its speed. She really had very little experience with time, but that was the way it seemed to her. She could almost feel it flying past her face as she and Aster turned another corner.
“Here we are,” he said. He escorted her down this shorter hall to a pair of beaded curtains. The curtains shimmered and the beads clicked gently when he parted them. “Now I want you to go through and find some place luxurious to sit. No one will disturb you. Except me, of course, when I return with those accursed items destined to deprive us all of your naked loveliness.”
She smiled at him. She enjoyed the way he spoke and thought perhaps she might try to adopt some of his colorful phrases. Later, once she had more of an idea what her own voice sounded like. For now, she said, “Thank you.”
“My pleasure, I assure you,” he replied. He gestured through the beads he still held open. “Go on now.”
She stepped through under the sweep of his arm and with a sudden plummeting in her belly realized she might just have walked through another door. She might just have gone forward when there was no going back. She turned quickly and to her relief the beads were still there, swinging gently now that Aster had released them. Just to be sure she peeked out and saw the hallway and Aster’s back as he turned the corner out of sight.
The room she was in looked like the world’s largest bed. There were pillows everywhere covered in satiny jewel-tones, amber, purple, red, blue and green. There were couches and divans scattered like velvet icebergs. There were great afghans draped over entire sections of the room.
Daffodil began to wander delicately through the embroidered chaos. Aster had said to find somewhere luxurious to sit. She could probably plop down in the middle of the floor and fulfill that requirement. The whole room was luxurious! She chose instead what looked like a large, shallow wicker basket stuffed full of amorphous cushions. The cushions were fluffy and inviting and she threw herself upon them in a fit of girlish abandon. Then she turned toward the beaded doors to await Aster’s return from her new throne.
As she waited in this dim chamber, every surface soft and full of captured light, her eyelids began to feel heavy. Her breathing slowed and she noticed how quiet it was with only herself to listen to again. She could still hear the muffled clacking of plates and silver, the occasional surge of voices, usually laughing, the hushed flutter of the flames as ovens were opened and closed, opened and closed. These pleasant murmurs wrapped her head in a cottony haze and it was only a matter of time before she laid back in her bowl of pillows, pulled a sky blue quilt over herself, tucked her hands under her chin and fell asleep.
In her dream, the sun and the moon were talking. She had often dreamt of the sun and the moon, felt in fact that most of her life had been a dream of the sun and the moon, but they had never spoken in words before. Not to her, not to each other. The sound terrified her in a way she could not explain, so much that at first she couldn’t even understand what was being said. She was trembling all over, her breath short, her stomach clenched.
Where was the soothing sigh of the wind? Where was the whisper of the grass? She could no longer hear these comforting sounds and could not even imagine that they were still there beneath the strange conversation taking place above her. A great booming rush of words from the sun and then the moon’s response, hoarse and hollow. The light from their faces was bizarre and scintillating harshly. Daffodil’s eyes began to roll in her head as she struggled to understand what was happening in her formerly peaceful womb of earth and sky.
The sense of it, however, continued to elude her.
Aster stood over the bed Daffodil had chosen and watched her sleeping face deepen into a frown. His heart, tremendously kind thing that it was, went out to her. He no longer really remembered his first day at The Wild Rose, but he had seen enough newcomers to know that everyone seemed to feel some discomfort, some trepidation at the newness of everything. Part of him wanted to reach out his hand and smooth the fear and confusion from Daffodil’s face right now. Part of him wanted to erase the sorrow on any face he saw. But the other parts of him knew that he did not possess that kind of power. There were things he could do, oh yes, certainly there were things anyone could do to mitigate the pain of another creature. But erase it? Erase it and all the other myriad sufferings of those who peopled existence? Definitely not.
This irrefutable knowledge did not prevent him from standing watch at Daffodil’s bedside and longing to see her smile again. He did so for the better part of an hour and then, when her expression became neutral, that of a sleeper instead of a dreamer, he slipped out of the room.