I wake up.
It has been a long sleep, but yesterday was an even longer day. My bed is a small pile of blankets and pillows on the smooth, hard surface of the floor. Sometimes I sleep leaning up against the intricately carved wall, but I stopped doing that when Madra shouted at me. Today, I awake curled into a ball among my pillows and blankets. They are lush and gilded with what might be real gold, but still, they are not a bed, and I sleep on the floor. This is what a servant does.
I sit and yawn, stretching. Sometimes, I awake to the sound of Lily or Madra shouting at me, demanding that I wake up so we can prepare the master's meal. Usually other servants do that – the women are left to other matters – but sometimes, the master enjoys Madra's cooking. When that day comes, Lily and I must help her as she cooks, with a nervous, tight look on her face that does not dissipate until the master tastes her food and smiles.
I look about the room, expecting to see Lily or Madra, and they are both curled up among their various blankets in different corners of the room. Each of us has a different color of blankets so I know who is whom. This room is very lovely – smooth, decorated floors, intricate paneled walls, windows stained in a criss-cross pattern that streams light across the floor in the same pattern. When I was very young, I slept with the other children in a small, dark room populated by blankets that were often ripped out of my hands and elbows that were often stabbed into my chest. The master does not like children much. He pretends to, says Lily, but he really doesn't.
Lily left the children's room at ten, a year before me. Ten is the age when the master's child servants graduate into 'elders' and are allowed into this room, the High Servants' room. But you must be eligible, and you must be female, to become a High Servant. If you are a male, at ten you are sent to other areas of the house to become a cook or a footman or some other type of servant. If you are a female and not eligible – from Lily I have learned that "ineligible" means "not pretty enough" – then, at ten, you disappear.
Lily and I have been the only two eligible females in the last few years.
I don't consider myself especially pretty. For years, since Lily told me what it takes to be eligible to become a High Servant, I have wondered why the master chose me. There were six other children in the children's room at the time I was chosen, four female, three of those, including me, turning ten. The other two were named Elisa and Madrica and though I felt Madrica looked like a hog, Elisa was one of the most beautiful girls I have ever seen, even at ten. But on the choosing day, both of them had disappeared and I was left to become a High Servant.
As I look around the room, still yawning a bit, I see another pile of blankets. But this is strange. It is not near the choosing time so it can't be another girl come to join us. And the blankets are purple…
It is Helena.
With a gasp, I get up in one move, my golden bracelets jingling, and rush over to the purple blanket pile. I kneel beside it and shake the hard body I feel underneath.
With a low moan, she throws her blankets off, revealing a dark, tear-stained face among waves of black hair. Her eyes are red and she looks miserable.
"Helena?" I say, because even though I know it is her, I still can't believe it's true.
She moans again. "Did you have to wake me?" she whines, sounding just like the Helena I know.
With a happy cry I enfold her in my arms. "Helena, you've come to visit us again!" I say, holding her tight. She used to be a good friend of mine, a fellow High Servant, before she came of age and was chosen to be a concubine for the master.
When she doesn't say anything, I let her go and hold onto her shoulders. "Helena?" I ask.
She stares at me blankly. "The master…"
"Yes. How is that going?" I try and smile at her; it's hard, considering I know she never wanted to be a concubine at seventeen, but it's been nearly four months months since she reached the age and was chosen. Surely he hasn't rejected her now?
Her face is bleak as she confirms my suspicions. "He sent me back here. He told me I was of no use at all to him."
I put a hand to my mouth. "Oh. Helena."
She stares at the floor between us, a space which seems miles long now. "I know I can't be a High Servant again. Not if I've been rejected, and not now that I'm too old." Her head droops; her hair obscures her face. "I know just what will happen. He'll let me stay here with you for a while, and then, someday, I'll just disappear." A sob escapes her mouth.
I want to comfort her, but I know little of what to say. I've never heard of a girl of the right age being rejected by the master, certainly not after months of being a concubine. "Cheer up, Helena," I say, idiotic words but the only words I have. "Madra is twenty-seven and she's still around. Perhaps he'll let you continue on."
"Madra refused to leave the High Servants room!" bawls Helena, shaking. "Gods know why he even listened to her and let her stay even after she turned of age! All we have is her word, anyway!" She says he, referring to the master, like the word was a poisonous worm she was spitting from her mouth.
I search for words for a moment, a long moment. "Madra was a special case," I say carefully. "Maybe you are, too."
She shakes her head, miserable. "He sent me back…" she whispers.
"Oh, Helena," I say, almost as miserable as she. "Did you even consummate?"
"Y-Yes," she whispers pathetically, her nose dripping. She wipes it almost violently. "I think I was even pregnant for a while…and then it just… it stopped, and…" She starts shaking again. "Oh, Lucy," she cries, clinging to me. "I must be barren. That's why I'm useless to him."
The noise must have woken Lily, for I hear her voice asking some question from across the room. Then, I hear her shriek, and thumping footsteps cross the room. I don't look up from Helena's miserable downcast face as Lily's shadow drowns both of us.
"Helena!" says Lily. For some reason, she sounds furious. "Why didn't you tell me you were back, for the gods' sake? I would have brought you a redcake or something!"
Helena doesn't even look up.
Lily's voice sounds concerned as she kneels beside me. "Helena, I… What's going on, Lucy?" she asks, appealing to me. Her golden hair shines brightly in the sun streaming through the window; it also makes her opal eyes glow.
"The master rejected her," I say sadly. "She thinks she miscarried. She also," I say pointedly, "thinks she's going to disappear."
Lily clucks. "Oh, Hel," she says and gathers Helena into her arms, where Helena stays, shaking slightly. "You're not going to disappear," insists Lily, her voice muffled by Helena's hair. "The master won't do that. He'll let you stay, I'm sure of it."
A sob bursts from Helena's throat, but otherwise she says nothing.
Madra has apparently awoken, and heard everything, for she's the next to come over, pulling Helena from Lily's arms and into her own. Madra is pale, auburn-haired and twenty-seven, older than anyone who's ever stayed in the High Servants' room – which traditionally is for girls who are someday going to be concubines – but Madra is already too old to be considered. The story, the one that usually Madra is telling, goes that she flat-out refused to become a concubine ten years ago, and for some reason, though she was certain she would disappear for it, the master allowed her to stay on as a High Servant even though she was too old to continue.
Madra is the comforter in the room, and now she comforts Helena, telling her all the usual things, such as "You're going to be fine", even though I'm certain she knows it isn't true. But when Helena doesn't respond – and when Madra lets her go, she sinks down into her blankets and sits there, sobbing quietly – Madra looks over at me and quietly says, "It's your day to sanctify yourself, Lucy. Don't be late."
And so quietly, I get up and leave the room, leaving Lily and Madra to comfort Helena and tell her things that aren't true, just so she can feel comfortable in the last days of her life.