A/n: I did post this story a good while back in 2004, but I have since edited it and reworked it, making it quite more snazzy if I do say so myself. Also, some of you may notice that this story is somewhat of a companion to The Puppet Queen, they are both set in the same world.
Ela, a royal slave is offered the chance to win her freedom back should she become a spy, but what happens when her head tells her to remain faithful to the quest which was set forth for her while her heart tells her to betray it, even while knowing betrayal could mean death
"Up, girls!" Cessie's voice rings resoundingly in my ears, a horrific way to welcome the new day, but one which I had grown accustomed to over the years; I have discovered a person could become habituated to anything if it were forced upon them long enough. Still, I stretch languorously,--an act of open defiance as far as I am concerned-- covering my yawns and scrubbing a hand through umber waves of hair.
The grumbles of the other slave girls tell me that they had been awakened equally unceremoniously. These are the girls I have spent every day of my life with for the past five years since I had become a house-slave. The majority of them are twits who irritated the Seasons out of me, but some are marginally passable and others positively divine. Whatever the case, we are all united by the simple fact that we serve the King's eldest daughter, the ever-so charming Princess Aerielle. It is considered an honor to be her slave, but a slave is a slave. As far as I can see we have but one advantage over the common kitchen slave is that the Princess requires her slaves to be clean, pleasing to the eye if you will.
"Ela, up yet, fool girl?" I look up to see my friend, Marsa, looming in front of me already dressed, nudging me with her foot. Ever-prompt is Marsa.
I stand up from my crouching position. "Yes, Marsa?" I groan. Mornings were possibly the most Seasons accursed time of the day.
"Have you seen our clothes for the Feast yet?" Marsa's pale blue eyes twinkle with the question.
I groan yet again. Clearly, this is not to be my day. "Oh no. They are usually so horrible. Usually? I stand corrected. Every single time. Every single bloody time. How can that even happen? How? All disgusting frills, and fluffs and uncomfortably tight," I whine, rubbing the copper skin of my face to invigorate it. "I want to be happy for a couple of more hours at least."
The dresses were the Feast of a Thousand Nights, which, frankly, no one remembers what it marks, except that it is an uproariously good time for drunkards and sweethearts, and the biggest festival in the Kingdom of Hademer. Which speaks a great deal of the Kingdom as far as I am concerned.
Marsa grins at me, her smile saying more than the words that followed. "You'll love these." She thrusts a mass cloth into my hands.
Gingerly holding it up, I try to keep the horrific thing as far from me as possible. It is a garish pink satin dress upon which there was a light blue chiffon robe. It is the type of satin that if you were it you could easily slip down an expanse of well-polished marble floor. "Oh no," I moan, "it's going to be impossible to move in these. We're maidservants you know? Should not our clothes have some purpose of movement."
Marsa is about to reply when Cessie, the head-slave, cuts through our conversation, "Stop your talking, get out and get working! Do you think that your blathering will strap the Princess in her corset? Do you think that's why we feed in house you?"
I do not respond that I would much rather they not feed and house me; that response has earned me a strapping before.
Marsa and I make a quick journey to the bathhouses: a quick dip in the pool and a rubdown in soap, before changing into our pale yellow maid livery. Simple cotton thankfully. I, for the life of me, cannot understand why nobles preferred slippery fabrics like silk. They are well and good to touch, but to actually wear it? I know I would be jumping around like a goose on fire if someone ever slipped me into one.
The princess is a demanding mistress, an unkind mistress, requiring baths, dressing, hair, and the like. Kept on my toes by the Princess's needs has kept me nearly as short and skinny as I had been when I had been captured by slavers at the age of thirteen; it still disturbs me to think of those things and I repress a shudder at thought. Whatever the case, the difficult schedule keeps me slim, and the waif-like appearance is only enhanced by huge jade eyes, an odd pairing with reddish brown hair and copper skin. Seasons know I had been on the dancers roster for the peculiar combination. Luckily I am ungainly to boot and it saved me that experience.
Marsa and I sprint up the many flights of stairs (the Princess has the most audacious of notion of having a room on the highest level of the castle) to Aerielle's suite, picking up her breakfast of fruits and cream from the kitchens on the way. We hustle to the doors of her room, and through them we can hear her intoning, in an imperious voice, "Now, I wish to look positively divine. That young duke is coming, and he is horribly handsome, so find me something...exquisite...You know what a big day for proposals the Feast of a Thousand Nights is."
We slowly move into the room, trying not to gain her notice.
"I have the perfect thing, your Highness," Dylenne says, curtsying. She brings forth an elegant blue silk, peppered lightly with tiny diamonds, the type of dress which would have fed my family back home for a year or more.
Aerielle eyes it with distaste, her eyes doing a discriminatory assessment of each facet of the dress. "That piece of trash! No, I said exquisite! Not trash," with that she throws the dress back at Dylenne, who gently hangs it back up in the wardrobe. "You are lucky I do not beat you for such an idiotic choice." Whatever you say about Aerielle, you will have to admit that she is extremely poised. Her throw of the gown simply caused it to drift to Dylenne.
"How about this?" Sherona volunteers a frilly pink dress, and positively simpers doing it. I grimace. Sherona is a vile little...trollop, and the dress was no better. Not that it is a trollop. It is simply tasteless. Not that I know much of royal fashion come to that, but from my country girl's perspective, Aerielle would be laughed out of any country dance wearing that.
Aerielle loves the gown, unfortunately but typically. Sherona could have done well with a beating as far as I am concerned. "That gown is perfect! It will go wonderfully well with my complexion!" her voice rings artificially through the air.
"Princess, we have your breakfast," Marsa chimes. She chimes a great deal around Aerielle. We all do. Anything to keep from her bad side really. Or, to be perfectly honest, her worse side.
"About time!" she says while stuffing her mouth with a cherry. She even stuffs her mouth perfectly. It is vile.
Finally, the time for the banquet arrives. It is not the relieved sort of finally either, but more of the, all right, it has come, let us be done with it quickly, type of finally. The feasting for Thousand Nights starts about midday and progresses all they way until dawn the next day. All of the girls line up in neat rows, which the General of the Army would be proud of, and are given their assignments by Cessie. Although the Princess's Maids generally do not work at festivals, this, being the grandest festival of all, all hands are needed on deck. I am designated to serve the Princess and her ladies, lucky lot I drew for that one.
Per usual they make sport of me and the other girls who have to serve them. Seated at their round table out in the gardens, they drop one thing, purposely, and then have us pick it up; order one thing from the large table in the center, where various dishes are kept, and one of us will have to fight through the hot, midday crowds to get it, and then they do not even take a second look at it. And of course those horrific dresses do nothing to help my mood. Should any of their male "suitors" even take a second look at us (and who would not gawk in our foolish costumes?) the ladies will give us an eye which promises a beating later. As if they will remember anything after the Night was over. After what seems to me the hundredth time, something in me, something very small but very angry cracks. Their conduct with us bespeaks of the fact that did not view us as people but lower than the creases, which we iron out of their foolish silk dresses. Where I come from, peasants had revolted against nobles for less than that.
I vow to myself that no matter what happened they would realize that some of the maids did protest, and protest isn't always verbal. I do not plan to thrash them, but something much more subtle. Or so I plan. Perhaps it is foolish of me, actually, admittedly, it is foolish of me, but when that tiny thing inside me snapped the line between foolishness and intelligence was blurred beyond recognition.
The opportunity to teach those ladies a lesson presents itself in the Hibiscus Garden, a medium-sized grassy square, surrounded by hedges of blooming scarlet hibiscus and lined with stone benches and fountains. All the ladies go there after the banquet to gossip or any other idle activity that was there for them to do and to prepare for the night's revelries. The charming ladies, from the table I had served, are sitting on the stone benches, their silk skirts moving gently in the breeze, blowing bubbles. A childish past time from where I am from, here it is considered an elegant way to pass the time. With the dainty glass wands made especially for their hands, they will make their bubbles, each pout of the lips as if they were practicing for a kiss. Knowing them they likely are.
The other ladies' maids and I are standing stationed accordingly around the vicinity of the garden, waiting for one of the noblewomen to command us to fetch her something. All of us have braced ourselves up for an afternoon of ridiculous requests. "Girl, get my puppy, Alfonso. Girl, get my brains. Girl…" A piercing voice breaks through my reverie.
"Girl!" a lady beckons to me; she is one of those that I had served, and I believe she was the one who had wanted the fish glazed with almonds, but never so much as sniffed it. "Get me the bubble glass." The very bubble glass that is within her arm's reach.
I stare blankly at her, a plan formulating in my head. Not so much a plan, as a bunch of haphazard thoughts coming together, but, nonetheless, something.
"Give it to me you dullard!"
I give it to her all right. I grab the glass bottle with the soapy mixture, scented with lavender, and hurl it at her. It arches through the pale rose sky (which clashes horrifically with my getup), the bottle glowing orange with the light of the sun. Everything seems to freeze: the slaves have their eyes as wide as they could go, and the noblewomen, why, their mouths gape open, like breathing orange and white carp. As the bottle hits the soft grass it quietly breaks at milady's feet, splashing formula and glass everywhere; her scream shatters the silence. I believe that in retrospect, I will find it to be not an especially clever plan. As if by magic, palace guards appear out of nowhere: they must have been standing in the shadow's of the hedges. Swiftly, they apprehend me and I, silently, do nothing to prevent them. I suddenly go very cold, very numb, and hit by such a wave of apathy you could not imagine. I realize that in one short movement I have ended my life as a slave, and more than likely will face banishment from the kingdom, but I do not care. Unluckily for the punishers, that will be a gift, for I miss my family very much, and now I can go back to see them. But then again, they can think up something horribly nasty for me to do, and that will not exactly be a dream come true.
Oh well, I think, I can't do anything now. One of my mother's favorite sayings drifts through my mind. "What's done is done, nothing can prevent that, it's better to make a new start than to cry." That's what I'll do, I decide. I'll make a new start, far from here, and I'll find my family. Or, if they do decide to torture me, I will not give them the satisfaction of crying. I imagine myself lying on the torturer's rack, spitting defiance into his eye. Not the most uplifting thought.
The silent guards continue to half shove half carry me through the palace.
"Ouch," I grimace after a final push, but, stone-faced as they were, they give me no reply.
We finally arrive at our destination where they throw me down on the black and white marble entrance of the Great Hall. As I predicted, I slip a good length of the floor, which gleams in the dying sun. I keep on my knees though, head bowed to the floor. I am the image of subservience.
"Elanora," a voice booms above my head, echoing throughout the vast halls. Clearly the speaker knows the full advantage the halls held when it came to magnifying sound.
I look up, startled. Nobody calls me by that name anymore; it is always 'girl' or 'slave' with the nobles or 'Ela' with my friends. I am not even sure that I have even told anyone my given name here in the palace or even in the whole entire nation of Hademer. Exceedingly curious that is.
As I look up I see a young man seemingly in his early to middle twenties, standing with his hand casually resting on the hilt of his sword. I catch my breath: the prince! "Sir?" I manage to gasp out. I quickly lower my gaze to the floor, to avoid his emerald stare, eyes which eerily match my own.
Why would the prince bother with me? I muse, cataloguing it away for discerning later.
"Do you know what you have done?" he asks.
Well obviously, I think, I am no dunce. But one of the first rules I have learned here is to always pretend to be an idiot to nobility; they may let you off easier, by taking pity on the poor simpleton slave, bless their noble hearts, something I rarely say. Admittedly, there are some nobles who are very decent. "No sir," I reply, carefully studying the fine tile work the masons had done on the marble. It is done so you can hardly see the separation between the pieces, and indeed, it seemed one mass. Very handy work that.
"Do you know what will happen to you?" The prince continues with his litany of questions.
Here is my chance to show nobility how stupid I really am. Ooh, my mother would have been so proud. Her eldest daughter a capital idiot and all that, I think sarcastically. "No sir," I respond, keeping my voice demure, whatever my thoughts say.
"Well let me explain," he proceeds, and begins pacing the floor, the hard heels of his boots clacking on the smooth marble. I inattentively note that he had very nice calf muscles. "You have broken a rule of the palace, a rule that sets apart nobility with the common servants. You intended to strike a Lady. You are quite lucky the bottle did not hit her; had it hit her, it would have been to the gallows for you. However, since it was only your intention to strike her and the events did not play out, according to the rule you will have to be deported. But, in your case there will be an exception."
Oh, the Seasons bless me, do they not?
Grabbing my by the chin, he lowers his gaze into mine, his eyes becoming even with my own, and perhaps it is the shock of two eyes so green meeting, but it causes a tingle to pass down my spine. "You shall do." he murmurs. And went straight to mumbling, gibbering like some madman.
I eye him warily, but at the same time have the must frustrating desire to scream 'I'll do what,' down that Grand Hall and hear my own exasperated voice echoing down the halls. But instead I breathe, "I beg your pardon?" and wipe a small trickle of sweat from my left temple. My hands shine a most peculiar shade of bronze in the sunset. But the Prince does not respond to my begging of pardon, and keeps on in his wild mutterings, of which I dqn catch nothing. For all his talk was so crazy his appears cool and sane. I know not how long I kneel here except that the sun has slowly sunk below the horizon and stars are beginning to rise. My back aches from the position. Suddenly he stop, and clapped his hands and the guards materialized out of nowhere. I have noticed that these guards had a knack for appearing from thin air.
"She'll do," he repeats to the guards. To me he says, "You have kept from my parties long enough. We shall meet again soon."
The sentinels nod in accord, and swiftly bow to the Prince. Apparently just about everybody but myself knew what I was about to do. I had the most disturbing feeling as if this had been planned beforehand, everything that had happened tonight, down to what we had worn. The thought was chilling, and I forced it out of my mind. No reason to question my "good luck," I reasoned. The guards nodded and escorted me out, each taking me by the elbow, none to gently; I expected bruises from this night's work.
I realize that I am to stay mute after my first two stabs at conversation have left me with kicked shins. None too talkative these brutes are. Our trio winds around passageways, until we finally arrive at what are apparently to be my new quarters. One of the guards finally releases my elbow, which I rub ruefully, unhooks a key from his ring, and unlocks the door to my new room. Quite frankly, I gape at it like a village girl in a large city for the first time. It is elegantly furnished with a large cedar bed, dresser, wardrobe and desk. The entire room has the faint scent of cedar mingled in with cinnamon. In fact, it nearly drowns in it, the smell wafting out of the room and into the hall; you can bottle the smell of that room and make a perfume out of it and the ladies would be wild to get it. I breathe it in even more deeply. The curtains, bedspreads, and rugs were all of scarlet velvet, or scarlet silk. I have seen the like before, it is not the splendor of it which surprised me, it is the fact that it is to be mine.
"Is this to be mine?" I stammer, trying to ascertain that it truly is before I make too big of a buffoon of myself, although the stammering was very much a smooth path of idiocy. As long as those sheets are good cotton and not that horrible, slippery silk, I muse, this room would be perfect. I surreptitiously lift the silk coverlet: good white cotton.
The guard on my left nods, and the one on the right says, "You'll have to do." He sounds very glum about the pronunciation.
This is the second time I have heard that blasted phrase within ten minutes, and it is already driving me crazy. And, is it really so bad that I will do? I am slightly offended by his bereft tone. However, I am too much in awe of the room to complain, to the guards or to myself; I content myself with a single roll of the eye.
They silently leave me standing and I hear the sharp click of the lock behind me. I have a sudden thought: if I had not served those wretched girls, and lost my temper I would never have been here. I mentally thank them, and laugh. It feels so good to laugh by myself and not have to answer what was so funny. And to hear my own laughter echoing in the room and not accompanied by a dozen other girls. Oh the wonders of privacy. I have a quick thought that I had nearly gone home to my family, but quell it immediately. There is nothing to be done for it, and I will not ruin a perfectly good chance moping like a fool.
I explore my new room with much delight. Every sort of book and oddity imaginable fills the shelves and cupboard of the room. Unlike most of the slaves I can read for my mother had taught me when I was barely four. They had gasped over it when I had mentioned it, and warned me to keep from the masters. The slaves say that the masters would think that a girl that can read would be too dangerous, and I may just get hung for it. There were still whispers of that which had happened to another girl the year I was bought, may the Seasons bless her.
Shaking my head of such dismal thoughts, I open the wardrobe and found an assortment of dresses in every material. Even that cursed silk. Those I stick in the farthest corner of the wardrobe. It is as if somebody already knew I was coming and had prepared for my every need. The court seer, of course could have seen my future, but he is old now, and rarely sees more than glimpses of a possible future. My mother, herself, is an excellent seer and has passed on her gifts to me, although I would not say I am at her par yet. Nonetheless, I can see the future in a pool of still water or even a water glass or a looking glass. That is something I have never mentioned to anyone after my capture.
I go to the arched window and see a full moon smiling at me. I cannot help myself, and I smile back. He looks so serene there in his big black sky, surrounded by his twinkling playfellows. I quietly shut the heavy curtains pulling the silk rope at the end. Still grinning, I pick up a light lavender nightgown from the back wardrobe.
There are two other doors placed next to each other. I open the first door and enter a lovely morning room. On the wide rectangular window were sheer curtains of pale yellow, perhaps a poke at my being a maidservant? There is also a quaint little cedar table with two seats with cushions of pale yellow silk. Very charming truth be told. Although how I am to manage to keep my seat on those silk cushions, I know not.
Leaving the morning room, I open the other door. As I expect, it is a bathroom. It is circular and everything in it is a pale blue, like the shallows of the ocean on a calm day. Off to the side of the bathroom is a large hexagonal bathtub, which, when I peer inside, is steaming and bubbles of pale rose floated in it. Unlike the slaves, each noble has their own bath, lucky fools.
I sigh; it is like a dream come true. Everything in the room is prepared as all my secret dreams had prepared my rooms. Perhaps my dreams weren't as secret as I thought they were. I shake myself from that thought. It is merely coincidence, I reason. I am being fanciful.
As I walk I look up, there are circular windows framing the upside of the walls. Looking into the tub, I spy candles floating in the bubbles serenely and next to the tub there is a low table with scented soaps, and jars of bath oils. Five minutes later, I slip into the bubbles and the warm water calmed me and relaxed my muscles. I sigh
I soak in the water for a while. What would my family say if they see me now, their only daughter, in a room fit for a princess. I feel the familiar pang in my stomach that occurs whenever I think of my parents. Suddenly, the bath is not so comforting. I soap my hair up, rinse it, and exit the tub promptly. Pulling on my nightgown, I leave the steamy bathroom. Once again, I enter the "Scarlet Room," as I have taken to calling it now, and I pull back the coverlets of the bed and fall with a gentle thud onto the soft mattress. I wonder what the Prince had meant by "You'll do," but before I can ponder it I slip into sleep.
I drift through various dreams, ones in which I ride horses, swim in the ocean, climb mountains, and even one in which I speak to animals, until I land on a dream that I know was the dream. I glide, (because it is a dream and you glide in dreams) to the Arend home, my home. The sea hardened wood looks as it always looked: warm and inviting, all smooth and swooping delicate lines, with arches freshly painted with black and white stripes, as is the fashion in Nighlyn. The house is surrounded by other, smaller abodes, and stands perhaps, several feet higher than the rest of the houses, owing its height to a slight hill upon which it is built.
The door creaks as I slowly opened it, as it always had. The familiar smell of fish and salt drifts over me, wafting from the kitchen and windows. I sigh. There really is no place like home. It never does occur to me that my visit is only temporary, that it is only a dream; as far as I am concerned at this moment I have never been taken away. They sit around a square table. They are my mother, beautiful as usual, her dark hair swept up by a fine silk net, my father, his hands rough and bronze, cutting his fish, and my little brother, slapping his hands happily on the table. I nearly coo at the sight of him, before I had...left...Mummy had been pregnant with him. But then I catch sight of another lad, near six years of age. Now, he must have been the one my mother had been expecting. I feel a quick pang in my heart over this unexpected growth and change to my family. My father is the head fisherman of our village, and since our village is a fishing village he is also the "chief" of it as well. He owns seven fishing boats and has nearly twenty men working for him, and in fact, Father had been thinking of expanding the house. It is quite the matter of pride for our family. Mummy manages all the affairs of the household and the village women. She runs the markets as smoothly as she runs our home. The two are speaking in low voices, and my wraith-like form steps closer to hear what they are saying.
"Lise," my father begins, scrubbing a callused hand through black curls. If anything this action, more than his eyes, says clearly just how nervous he is. Father is a cool one, never to let anything flap him, whether it be the most fearsome tempest of the century or a distinct lack of fish in the sea.
"Yes?" interrupts my mother, engrossed in feeding my new baby brother. In her hand is a crude wooden spoon filled with some forest green mess. I feel an immediate sympathy for the soon-to-be victim of that dish.
"Have you had any visions of Sarra lately?" he asks worriedly, and I feel oddly gratified that my family still remembers me, although it is foolish to think that they would have forgotten me.
Mummy looks up, her green eyes, so much like mine, curious. "Funny you should ask, really. Right after you left with the tide this morning. As I was cleaning up after your breakfast…she has grown so," Mummy sighs forlornly, "away from us, and I wish she were back."
"How is she?" he presses, eager, but nervous. It breaks my heart to see him like this.
She frowns, and I notice crinkles around her eyes where there had been none before. She is only in her thirties! Too young for that sort of thing for many many years. "Healthy, although not happy."
"But at least she's safe," my father replies.
Hearing a crash above my head, I start awake. I am at a total confusion as to where I am. The soft cotton sheets and the silk coverlets look completely foreign, and I fight the urge to shriek with fright. Closing my eyes, I gather my calm and my breath and suddenly recall that I was sent to this room for whatever mysterious purpose. Slowly, a few shards of memory tumbles back, and once I am calm again, I step out of bed and open the curtains to peer out of the large clear windows. The moon, which had been full and round, is now swathed in dark clouds, her smiling face hidden by a dark veil. The sound which had awoken me is booming thunder, and accompanying it are pouring sheets of rain which obscure the view out of my window and flash grey and white.
I attempt to return to my former sleeping state but there is a restlessness inside of me which will simply not allow it. Lighting the white and blue porcelain lamp which stands on the mahogany bedside table with a nearby candle, I lower myself upon a plush scarlet armchair. Placing my chin on clenched fists, I dreamily close my eyes, letting my mind roam where it will. My thoughts, lighting upon the bed, are suddenly reminded of an event and they trail back to the time I had been kidnapped.
It had been the day of the Summer Solstice Festival, our little village's grandest holiday, something quite different from Hademer's fool Feast of a Thousand Nights. The Summer Solstice is the height of the most powerful Season, Summer, and it was common knowledge that the most wishes and prayers are granted on that very holy day. Merchants and gypsies from all around journey to the nearest villages to partake in it. A carefree day filled with amusement and treats, there is no work done on this day other than the work of sales: every family sets up stalls of their own to hawk the wares, such as knits or clay pots or even, for the blacksmiths, things of iron, all of which are made during the rainy seasons of winter and spring: it never truly snows in coastal Nighlyn, especially the western regions.
But on that day, Mummy, having felt a spurt of generosity, and despite her condition, had given me four coppers and commanded me to enjoy myself while she minded our stall, which, generally was considered my duty. Her only condition for my day of freedom was that I promise to return to her before lunch and I readily agreed to this stipulation. Excited about my newfound freedom, I strode to the village center, where the best things and entertainment were housed, confident in my ability to snatch a good deal. Buying a hot cheese flan, I commenced eating it, blowing the heat which steamed from it away, trying not to burn my fingers in the process. With what remained of my money, I purchased a small purse of a fine, printed muslin and a bracelet of glass beads, strung upon a fine red silk string.
Two coppers still remained and I was searching for a place to spend them at; they were burning up my palm, hot like the rock sand on the beach on a summer's day. A stall owner had seen me looking around and beckoned for me to come forward; his wares appeared promising. "How much do you have, eh?" he asked me, long brown hair swinging forward to cover his shaded blue eyes.
"Two coppers," I replied impatiently for I was eager to look around the other stalls as well. Had I been in the least bit shrewd, I would not have given him an accurate representation of my current wealth, yet how can one expect an innocent village girl from the secluded coast to be canny? What interested me the most though, was the man's manner of speaking; his accent was most definitely not from Nighlyn, and rarely did out of country traders journey here. When it occurred to me that the man may have some new and interesting goods from far off lands I became anxious to see exactly what he had to sell and how much he would take for it. "Where are you from?" I questioned, brash in my wonder.
"Hademer," he replied, his voice smooth, his brow clear, even against the glaring Nighlyn sun; clearly he was someone who knew travel well.
And that was my introduction to the country of Hademer. A touch ominous if you consider what followed it.
"Where is it?" I asked, my leaning on his rickety stall, all eager to have my questions answered.
The man gave me a quick appraisal, his eyes hooding whatever intentions he may have had. "Curious for a village girl, isn't you?" He tapped a finger against his lip, seemingly deep in thought. "I think I have just the perfect thing for you."
"What, what?" I asked leaning forward even more enthusiastically, and by this point that weak stall of his seemed ready to tumble at any extra push of weight.
"Come behind the stall, and you'll see. I tell you little girl, it is a marvel to behold this thing I have for you. Why, I should say all the other girls in the village will be mighty jealous of you once they see you with this fantastic piece of work."
My conscience was telling me not to go behind, but those two coppers were getting awfully heavy in my hand. I ducked behind and looked.
"Where is the item?" I inquired, all innocent interest.
"Um, just a bit farther, yes?"
Before I could say "what?" a fist came swinging towards me and while it did not initially knock me out it did cause me to see stars in all different hues. I assume something else must have struck me as well, for I was soon efficiently rendered unconscious.
Later on, I awoke in a wagon of sorts, a weak old thing, with the grey-green paint nearly chipped off and the wood splintering at the edges. Clearly it had seen better days. Checking thoroughly for any injuries, I felt a terrific bump coming up on my head. Surprisingly though, my purse and bracelet were still with me as was my mother's silver locket, the one she had lent me for the very purpose of this festival. That, I put it in a pocket on my sleeve and secured it with a button. I also realized that my hands and feet were unsecured, something I considered exceedingly odd. What was there to stop me from escaping? That question was soon answered when I tried opening the canvas flap which covered the back of the wagon; it was shut tight, and I realized that more than likely the outside of it had been nailed shut. I ran my fingers along the fabric of the rest of the wagon, and despite the shoddy situation of the vehicle itself its upholstery flawless: not even the slightest rent I could tear into.
At that moment, with that realization, I am slightly ashamed to admit it, but I did begin to cry. As far as I was concerned, I would never see my family and friends again, and all through my foolish, blind curiosity. It was a horrible thought, and one that became more real with every passing of the sun. The slavers, as I assumed they were for who else would kidnap a child, had kindly left me small holes the size of my thumb in the bottom of the floor to get air and light from. I had no idea where they were taking me.
Twice a day they gave me hard cheese and stale water through an open flap the size of runt cat. Oh, I tried clawing through that one, but there always appeared to be guard sitting there who did not mind becoming a little free with his hammer to slam into stray digits. A few days later we made a short stop of about a two hours and when they came back they threw in the wagon a boy several years my elder. Once again, the flap was nailed shut, and each ringing of the hammer on the nail felt as if it were slamming onto my fingers instead. The wagon started again to its unknown destination.
I attempted to speak to him several times but he spoke none of my language, Rana, and I spoke none of his language, whatever it may have been. The best I could make out from the broken sign language that we used to communicate was that he was the miller's son and had been on an errand to deliver something. He had been taken in much the same fashion as I had. For one ironic moment, it felt good to know I was not the only complete fool abroad in this wide wide world, that someone else had been taken in by a sham that should rightly have not fooled a two year old child.
After the first day he did not speak again, and brushed off most of the attempts I made to invite him into a conversation. When I asked him his name he muttered it so softly I didn't catch it. After a week of traveling with him, he finally left us when he was sold, to a wealthy family for a very good price as I heard the chief slaver say. The actual reality of it struck me after this transaction, I was really a slave, or about to become one. They weren't going to apologize and say this was all a big mistake and return me home. No, I was going to be sold. Slave, slave, slave, the word echoed through my mind through the rest of the journey.
I did make one attempt at escape, and it was quite admirable at that. Once at the end of each day, I was taken outside and given leave to relieve myself behind the bushes. The night after Viktor, as I had in my mind taken to calling my once fellow captive, had been sold, I had sat behind the bushes for a good long while, citing issues with my stomach which the guard did not question, fool lazy man that he was. He, thinking it of no consequence to leave an incapacitated child for a moment, left to fetch something and I took this opportunity to dash away to freedom as fast as I could. For nearly two hours I had sweet freedom in my hands, but one of the slavers' dogs captured me right quick. After that, I was not allowed out of the wagon and was told to make do with the holes in the floor of the wagon. Needless to say, it was not very delightful at all.
Several days later I was sold to the Royal House, and the slavers had been mighty happy to see me go, although why, I could not say for certain. Surely other had attempted escape as well, not just me? Six years later I am here, in a room of crimson, maybe a slave, maybe free. I hope for the latter. Looking at the locket, which I had worn throughout the whole of my enslavement, I realize that it still gives me the comfort of knowing that not all of my past life is lost to me. Shifting away from the chair, I throw myself into the bed, blow out the lamp and peacefully, fall asleep.
When I awake, the sun sparkles in my room, and I stretch luxuriously for the first time without fear of Cessie's reprimand or worse, that horrific cane she carries. Despite her absence, I can very distinctly hear her words: "Thinking you're a princess, eh? Well, I'll let you know that princesses ain't your kind. For one, they don't sit out and muck chamber pots, like you. Now get your pathetic backside up and get to work before I take the cane to you."
I lay there for a few more moments, if only to spite the memory of Cessie. Reluctantly, I climb out of my bed and go to the washbasin in the bathroom, which holds an icy bath of water, ideal for splashing oneself awake. I then open the wardrobe and pick a dress of pale green muslin tied with a white sash around the waist. Perhaps I am adamantly opposed to silk, but there is nothing wrong with a touch of muslin. Quickly, I brush my long, umber hair and tie it up with a pale green ribbon.
I sit in front of the mirror looking at myself, almost as vain as the princess! Still, there is something unusual about the colors of my person, the copper of my skin, the reddish-brown of my hair and the green of my eyes that I like very much and that no one else has. In some ways it is a hideous combination of hues, but I enjoy it. Somebody knocks on the doors, and I jump clear out of my seat, afraid at being caught in my act of preening. The door swings open: clearly the knock is merely a pretense. At the door is the prince, Damae. I drop a hasty curtsy and let him in.
"I have brought your breakfast," he says it as if it were not unusual for the prince to bring a slave her breakfast.
Nonetheless I usher in him, for who am I to turn down the bearer of good food. Add to that the fact that I am starving, having missed dinner due to the "occurrence," and at that moment, Damae's appearance is the happiest thing for me in the entire world. He strides to the morning room, confident in his step, and waits for me to open the door for him. Ducking a quick and awkward curtsy, I open the door and take the tray, laden with tea, bread, butter and jam from him and set it upon the table.
Well," he says smiling, "I should not wonder if you are curious to why you are here." He pours himself a cup of tea and sits down on the delicate chairs at the table and motions for me to join him.
Nodding, I sweep down on the chair across from him, crossing my ankles beneath the step of the chair as I am wont to do.
"It is something of utmost importance and secrecy and I am not yet at liberty to speak of it to anyone not even you, but rest assured you will play a very large role in it, even if you have not all the knowledge accompanying
us on this plan."
Well, that's helpful, I think dryly.
"When will you be able to tell me about it," I inquire, keeping my voice calm and coolly interested. If I have learned anything about bargaining from my past experience it is to always feign disinterest and to never reveal all the cards you have in your hand.
"Very soon, perhaps even tomorrow, but in the meantime, as a reward for your cooperation, if you would like something name it and it shall be yours." Clearly he likes giving things away, for upon his visage is a look for such utter generosity and magnanimity that it is on the whole, all too saintly to handle.
My freedom, I think, but instead I answer, making an attempt to think rationally, "Maps, please your highness. And of all the countries in the known world, if it pleases your highness."
"Very well then," replies the prince, without even bothering asking why. "It should be good practice for what we are about to set you to do." He slathers some butter onto a piece of toast and commences eating, and I follow suit. We spend the rest of the breakfast in silence, but whenever I look up I see him observing me with frank bewilderment in his eyes. After he takes his leave I wonder why would he ask me if I wanted to know why I was here if he would not tell me. Perhaps it is a test of some sort. If it is, then it is quite a foolish one, for it has no apparent purpose.
In the meantime I will study those maps most meticulously and plan an escape, an escape back to my home. I will chart my course and flee, and be a slave no longer. The very thought fills me with pleasurable shivers, yet even when it is the most delightful of thoughts I know that is ridiculous. It can never happen; there is no way I can even go down the hall without being put back in my room let alone plan an escape from Hademer, the country which is famed for the careful guard it keeps on all of its property, not only lands and wealth but also living property.
The door slams shut, aided by a vagrant breeze and again the lock clicks, closing me in. No matter how courteous and polite the prince is to me I am still in a cage, a gilded cage, but a cage nonetheless. And sometimes, it occurs to me, the nicest prisons are the most dangerous ones, because one is more liable to grow brazen and unwary in a cage in which one feels safe as opposed to one where every step reminds you that you are living in danger.
Nobility is never nice without a cause. This lesson has been drilled into my head since my very first day here. And yet, here is Damae being kind to me for whatever he plans; I know that indeed it must be something awfully dangerous to warrant aid from a slave, but nobles cannot be trusted. Some are pleasant when they have something especially nasty planned; Princess Aerielle is a prime example. On my very first day here she sweetly introduced herself and even more sweetly told me what exactly was expected of me and what would happen if I did not do what she commanded. Suffice it to say, the punishments would have turned even the most seasoned jailhouse torturer somewhat green about the gills. So, with Damae being very agreeable I am left wondering if it is not poison presented in a golden chalice. I certainly hope not, for he seems a good sort, if you like royalty, that is.
The maps, which I had requested, come promptly within an hour, delivered by a mute who seemed as likely to talk as to cut a caper. To kill time I try to figure out ways to get home, lining out routes which take me straight to Nighlyn and others in which I have to cross deserts, rivers, as well as the Beryl Sea. I work throughout the day and into the night to form an escape plan, but more than anything, I feel as if it serves as a mental escape from Hademer. I know it is hopeless, yet, if there is any possibility of me escaping I am determined to find it. It occurs to me much later that I would have done well to ask for the plans of the palace as well.