Justina was in the forest when the palatine came. Sent to forage for smaller broken branches that could be used as kindling, she had followed the stream that wound through the trees just beyond her family's farm. Her toes ached - confined in boots well worn through and ill-fitting after three winters without replacement - and the rough bark rubbed against her hands painfully. When at last her arms were full, she returned to the house to find her mother pleading with her father as he paced the floor rapidly.
"Thurzó is the palatine!" he was insisting. "We cannot refuse his request."
"But how can you send your own daughter to that woman? After everything she has done?"
"The palatine says she is locked safely away. Justina won't even be able to speak to her."
Hearing her name, Justina dropped the sticks in her arms pointedly, drawing their attention.
"What has happened? Mama?" When her mother looked at her father fearfully, Justina knew something was truly wrong. "Papa, tell me!"
"Sit down! All of you!" Her father's voice boomed, causing Justina and her sisters to jump, startled.
Justina and her mother sat at their table, and her two younger sisters crawled down from the loft to join them. Her father paced back and forth across the room a few more times until they were all settled. Then he spoke.
"While you were out, Palatine Thurzó came to the house. He told us they need a young woman to go to the castle - Csejte - to serve Countess Báthory and the men who guard her. Someone to make meals and empty her chamber pot, he said."
"The murdering bitch should be forced to empty her own pot," Justina's mother spat, "and forced to starve. After the way she treated her servants, how can they ask anyone to serve her now?"
"I do not understand it any more than you, and yet cannot deny the palatine's request. They say he will be given much of the Báthory lands for his part in bringing her to justice. To anger the man who could soon own our farm would be foolish."
"But why must our Justina be placed at such risk?"
"There is no risk, Zofia, as Thurzó explained. The Countesses' rooms have been walled off. Justina will simply have to pass a tray through a small space near the floor." He turned to Justina. "The palatine said he would be back tomorrow. You must make sure you are ready to answer his questions. If he decides that he wants you to go to the castle, then you will go, and that is all the discussion there is going to be about it."
Her mother sulked for the rest of the afternoon, and Justina's younger sisters peppered her with questions until she snapped.
"I do not know when I will leave, or if I will leave at all!" She shooed them back towards the ladder to the loft. "Go on! Get out of my way so that I can help Mama with dinner."
As she sat back at the table to begin peeling potatoes and listened to her mother mutter about the gall of the palatine, Justina wondered what it would be like to meet the man who had so much power over their lives that he could appear out of nowhere one day and threaten to change everything with a single request.