Chapter 1: Servitude
Splat! Another drop of water rolled down Madrina's nose to fall on the rain slick cobblestones at her feet. The young girl shivered and wrapped her arms about her thin frame in a vain attempt to get warmer as a cruel wind blew past, sending her long dishevelled hair flying about her. Her worn and patched dress was comfortable in the summer but nigh on useless once the cool weather rolled in.
Madrina shivered again and clutched the worn straw basket to her chest, protecting her precious burden with her own body as the cold rain lashed at her with an elemental fury. The girl could barely see through the combination of her matted, wet hair and the driving rains. She trusted to her feet, which had trodden this path so many times before, to lead her home.
It was a long walk home, longer with the frigid autumn winds blasting off the half-frozen lake that the city encircled. Lips blue, teeth chattering, Madrina slipped quietly into her house and put down her basket as gently as possible. Only then did she remove her soaked threadbare shawl. The warmth of the kitchen slowly stilled her shivers and once she had dried off enough that she wouldn't drip, Madrina reclaimed her basket and made her way from the bright kitchen to the dark hallway.
The creak of the first step betrayed her as she began climbing the old oak staircase. "Madrina!" The shriek came from above. "You're late! We're almost ready to get dressed!"
"I'm sorry." Madrina called back, now taking the stairs two at a time. Finally she reached her step-family's haven. Lamps brightened the delicate pink room as a roaring fire in the hearth staved off the rain's chill.
"What took you so long?" Nymira demanded, her face set in its perpetual scowl.
"The wind and the rain made the way home confusing." Madrina whispered, staring at her bare feet.
"You're just too stupid to remember the way back." Rhetha said as she snatched the basket away from Madrina. Nymira rushed over and soon the two of them were squabbling over the rainbow of silk ribbons Madrina had brought.
"Girls! Is that how young ladies of good breeding act?"
"No mother." The two Nasties chorused dully as they sat back down.
"Nymira you know perfectly well that you'll be wearing the lilac dress so you have no use for the emerald ribbons. Rhetha you're going to be gowned in deep red, so that bright blue isn't going to be very helpful. Now please choose ribbons that will match your dresses."
"Yes mother." The pair chorused again as they rose to do their mother's bidding. Her daughters now behaving, she turned to the other girl. "Now Madrina, we'll be gone until late tonight and there's a few things I need you to pick up for our return. We need some fresh tea cakes, new tablecloths and see if you can't find some new kind of ornaments. I'm tired of having to wear the same things as everyone else. We need to stand out. I'll expect you to have everything here and put away by the time we return. Oh and don't forget to tidy up a bit. We don't want important visitors to have to sit in a dirty house now do we?"
"Excellent. Now start getting the girls dressed. We need to look our best for the play."
What then followed was two hours of what most people would consider torture, as the two girls squeezed themselves into dresses two size too small. Madrina's calloused palms were so used to pulling on the corset strings that they didn't even bleed as she helped wedge her two step-sisters into their gowns.
Once suited up and barely able to move, the two girls had their hair put up in elaborate styles that caused the hair to be pulled and twisted in painful ways even when professional hair-stylists performed the operation. Not that it stopped them from slapping Madrina every time she yanked their hair, but the girl was so used to it she just continued on with her work as if nothing had happened.
Finally the three of them were ready and Madrina saw them off before trudging back upstairs to repair the damage done to that room during the dressing and before when she had been absent. Righting one of the end tables, Madrina happened to glance out the window and saw something dart by. Jumping, the girl approached the window carefully and peeked out. Nothing was there. Just the rain and a few passer-bys. Shaking her head at her own folly, Madrina finished up, reclaimed her now dry shawl and straw basket and left the house.
The rain had quieted and was now just a steady dripping, the wind calmer as well. Smiling slightly at her luck, the girl once again navigated the winding maze of streets that made up the city she called home. Her first stop was the linen merchant's. He was one of her favourites, and smiled at her when he saw who it was entering his store.
"Madrina! How nice to see you." He said in gretting.
Smiling shyly, Madrina approached the counter. "Have you any new tablecloths? Madam is insistent we get new things."
The aging merchant made a disapproving clucking noise as he led her past the piles of cloth to the finished products. "We have a new cream coloured one with gold embroidery and we have some new ones in plain white. Shall I wrap up the cream one for you?"
Madrina smiled at him and nodded. Cliamon knew her step-mother as well as she did, as least so far as her taste in ornamentation went. "Thank you."
"It's no trouble. If you ever need a place to stay me and my wife are always glad to have you over."
Blushing, the girl flashed another smile at Cliamon before heading back out into the rain, new linen carefully stored in her basket with a layer of oiled paper overtop to keep the water out.
Humming to herself quietly, visiting Cliamon always made her feel better, she stopped by the nearby bakery to order the cakes, planning to pick them up after she visited her least favourite shop, the bangles store.
Entering the building, filled with the scent of perfume and the invisible odour of money, Madrina crept along to the side where the hair ornaments were, hoping to avoid the notice of any of the shop assistants. Those girls took great pleasure in snubbing her, causing the shy Madrina to all but shut-down in the vocal capacity, leaving her unable to answer there slanders. Her good luck continued as there were several other women shopping and the assistants were kept busy helping them, leaving Madrina free to browse in peace.
Finding a new set of crystal pins in flower, star and butterfly forms, the girl left the shop as quickly as possible, another bundle now under the oiled paper. However her good luck appeared to be up as the rain's fury had returned, even fiercer this time around.
Stumbling across the cobblestones, hair once again plastered to her hair, a strange noise made her look up. Sitting on top of the statue of King Bazyli the First was a young man, who was laughing as he watched her struggle to walk through the veritable waterfalls that were pouring down from the skies. What had Madrina staring despite herself was the fact that he was completely dry. The water seemed to bend away from him as if afraid to touch him.
"You're not going to get anywhere very fast like that." He called down to her, a grin still firmly fastened on his face.
Madrina flushed and looked away, just as a cart rumbled past, splashing water right into her face. Shaking her head to clear away her hair, she felt the bottom of her basket and found it as soaked as she was. Face drained of all colour, the girl felt beneath the oiled paper and found the new tablecloth wet completely drenched.
Struggling not to cry and failing miserably, Madrina felt a soft touch on her shoulder. Turning, she saw it was the man from the statue. "Are you alright? Oh geez you're crying! Don't cry. I'm sorry about laughing at you, really I am. It was just…"
"The tablecloth's all wet!" Madrina sobbed, unable to stop herself, so rare was it that she was offered a kind word from a total stranger.
"The tablecloth? That's what you're upset about? It'll dry by tomorrow."
The girl continued to sob. "Madam wanted it for tonight and she's going to kill me when she sees it's all wet."
Only understanding half of her watery words, the man pulled the basket from her arms, looking inside at the soaked tablecloth. "Hmm. My friend Shisori is supposed to meet me here soon. If I give this to her she'll be able to dry it out. Why don't you wait with me until then?"
"How is she going to be able to do that?" Madrina asked, startled out of her tears.
The man winked and touched her forehead in reply before handing her, her basket back. Blinking in confusion, the girl followed him as he walked over and the leaned up against the statue. It took a few minutes for Madrina to realize she wasn't being rained on anymore and that the rain was now no more then a drizzle.
Catching her surprised glance, the man grinned at her. "I have my uses."
"Who are you?" Madrina asked, studying the tops of her bare feet.
"My name's Wathswin."
"I'm Madrina." She replied, still looking at the ground.
Following her gaze, Wathswin frowned. "What happened to your shoes?"
"I only use those when it's winter."
"What?" Wathswin snapped, eyes suddenly darkening from blue-grey to an almost black colour.
"Stop it Oasil." A lightly accented voice said, from beside them.
Turning, Madrina saw the prettiest woman she'd ever seen standing there dressed in elaborate robes of red and gold. Her bronzed skin was offset with full scarlet lips and wide honey eyes, surrounded by waves of red-gold hair.
"It's the middle of autumn and she's not wearing anything on her feet Shisori. Am I supposed to take that calmly?"
"It's none of our concern." The woman replied.
Hissing something in a language Madrina didn't understand, Wathswin glared at the beautiful woman.
Shisori's eyes flicked briefly to Madrina's forehead and then back to Wathswin. "Fine." Reaching forward, she laid a hand on the girl's basket and steam suddenly enveloped them. "Your cloth is dry now. You should return home before the rain starts again." She said ignoring the little outraged noises Wathswin was making.
Nodding, Madrina bowed once to the strange pair and then sprinted off, only just remembering to stop at the bakery before she went home.