The sixth time that the Lady Melitta sent me down the stairs, I realized what should have been obvious to begin with: It was going to be a real bitch of a day.
It had begun the night before, as most bad days do. One of my many jobs as Melitta's handmaid was to bring my lady her supper tray, and I'd dropped it, sending all its contents crashing down onto the carpet. Wine. Gravy. Custard. A particularly greasy duck. It wasn't exactly an accident and Melitta knew it, but she didn't get quite as angry as I had expected. I think she was distracted, her mind on something else. Maybe she had crabs, or a raging infection. I can only hope.
She thrashed me, of course, but it was a routine kind of thrashing. Her heart wasn't really in it. I'd become a bit of a connoisseur of thrashings, in the years I had spent as Melitta's servant, and this one didn't come close to ranking in the top twenty on the all-time scale. And yet I lost my head in the middle of it, and I bit her hand.
Why? Damned if I know why. I was sixteen years old then, and my moods went up and down like a bucket in a well. I was unpredictable even to myself.
It was a hell of a bite. I got my teeth into the fleshy part of the palm, below the little finger, and clamped down until my teeth nearly met. If I'd had a few more seconds, then I probably could have taken a whole chunk off. But Melitta- I'll say this much for her- Melitta knew how to stay calm under pressure. Instead of squawking and flailing uselessly, she snatched up a stick of firewood and smashed blows against the side of my head until I had to let go.
And after that, things got unpleasant.
It went on so long, and I made so many noises, that we woke up my father on the floor below. My father, Lord Iason, always was a light sleeper- I think it was because of his constant fear of assassins- but my howls that night could have woken up a corpse.
Once awake, my father trailed up the stairs, peeked through the door, and cleared his throat uncomfortably. Which may not sound like much, but it was rare for him to go so far. Though it might have been coincidence, Melitta dropped her stick of firewood, and then me, a few seconds later. She paced back and forth across the room- quick, impatient, furious steps- then threw herself into her chair. Her fingernails drummed on the arm.
When she finally spoke, it was a hiss, like seething water. "Get out of my sight."
I checked the floor, to be sure that I wasn't leaving any teeth on it, and then scrabbled backwards out of the door. My father had ghosted away by that point. He always tried to avoid getting involved. Such a shy, sensitive man.
I collapsed onto my straw mat and wrapped my blanket around me. That was where I slept- on the landing outside Melitta's door. We were a month into winter, and there was a white tracery of frost over the flagstones. In spite of everything, I wasn't feeling too bad. I was tired, I was aching, I was dizzy from getting hit too often in the head- but there was a warm wash of relief, too. Another of Melitta's scenes was over, and once again, I wasn't dead.
She wasn't supposed to do anything that would put my life at risk. My father needed me too badly, for a reason that was never ever mentioned or discussed. But I'm positive that Melitta spent half her time daydreaming about some kind of fatal accident.
I was just beginning my post-thrashing ritual (catch breath, rub bruises, curse a lot) when Melitta's door crashed open. She stormed out in her robe, a violet cyclone. In one swift, vicious motion, she snatched my blanket away from me, and then she stormed back into her room. The door smashed shut again.
For some time then, I didn't do anything. I didn't even curl up or hug my knees to keep myself warm. I just stared at the opposite wall and hated her, hated her, hated her. Nothing else in the universe seemed more vivid or more real.
It was my breath that eventually caught my attention- the way it misted out in front of me. That's when I realized that I was shivering hard, my muscles jerking in something close to convulsions. It was bitter, bitter cold. My feet were bare, and already they looked bloodless and numb.
How the hell, I wondered dully, was I supposed to sleep?
That was a stupid question- as I realized after a moment- because of course I wasn't supposed to sleep. I was supposed to pass a miserable night out on the bare landing, and be transformed by morning into a quivering little rabbit who wouldn't even dare to raise her eyes from the floor.
Unlikely. But it's hard to predict your own breaking point, it really is. You can hold out through a lengthy beating, and then dissolve in sobs when your shirt gets ripped.
A thought popped into my head, and I almost laughed. Right that moment- right that second- my half-sister Ariadne was getting ready for bed, a couple of turns down the spiral stairway from the spot where I was sitting. Her servants would have put warming pans between her sheets, and aired out her pillows. Fluffed her coverlets, which were filled- I shit you not- with swan feathers.
A different bedtime ritual from mine. Very different. But she was Melitta's daughter, and Melitta was married to our father. My mother, now dead, had been a servant who wasn't fast or lucky enough to stay out of my father's way. Apparently that was important, for some reason that I'd never really understood.
I managed that night by wrapping my straw mat around me like a stiff pancake. It kept some of my body heat in. Even so, there were times when I could feel my heart laboring- thudding with slow, painful jolts, as if my blood had grown too thick and stopped moving through my veins. When that happened, I would get up and run furiously up and down the stairs until my lungs burnt.
The problem was that running made me sweat, and that made me colder. As it got nearer to dawn, I stopped trying to sleep. I walked around and around and around the landing, with my arms inside my tunic, hugged against me, and I could only hope that my footsteps were keeping Melitta awake.
Whether it was that or something else, I don't think that my lady slept well. When she rang the bell at daybreak to summon me into her room, it had a particularly impatient sound to it- Ting! Ting! Ting!
She was out of bed when I entered the room, sitting stiffly in an armchair by the low-burning fire. I bowed my head and waited.
Melitta inspected me. Not that I was looking at her face- I was studying the toes of her slippers, face downcast- but still, I could tell. I could tell whether Melitta was smiling or frowning from the way the hairs on the back of my neck prickled.
"What are you waiting for?" she snapped, with sudden irritation. "Move."
Melitta's chamber was at the top of the tower keep, so serving her involved an awful lot of climbing up and down. Melitta first took me as her handmaid when I was eight, and back then, it only took a trip or two up and down the stairs to bring me to the point of collapse. By the time I was sixteen, I was considerably tougher, but the work still took its toll.
As always, the first thing I did that morning was to carry Melitta's slop-pail down to the yard and empty it. Then I carried up her breakfast tray. That much I did by sheer instinct. Shuffling along half-asleep, I almost didn't notice how much I was hurting. Almost.
I was hungry, too, though it hardly seems worthwhile to mention it. I was always hungry back then. The scraping ache in my stomach was like the feel of stone underfoot. Just one of the bastard facts of living.
Melitta watched me narrowly as I put the tray down, but she said nothing- just drew her chair up to the table and waved for me to keep going.
Another trip down the tower stairs to fetch firewood, and another for a bucket of water. By then I was really struggling. My legs felt almost liquid, trembling beneath me, and my heart pounded so hard that I saw stars.
It was a vast relief when I reached Melitta's room again. As I poured the water into the washbasin, Melitta stared out of the window. She had already finished her breakfast. My lady was always, always trying to slim down, and so she didn't eat much in the morning- a hard rusk dipped in wine, and perhaps a few raisins or olives. Stupid, if you asked me. She was always starving by the time supper came. Starving enough to eat two roast fowl and a pile of honey cakes and give herself terrible heartburn. Which made her just a peach to deal with.
Her voice bored into me, all of a sudden. "Did you bring up enough wood?"
"Yes, my lady," I said, with my eyes fixed on the bucket. It was the only way I could prevent myself from giving the answer I actually wanted to give, which was Of course I did, you stupid bitch.
"It'll last about six hours. My lady."
"I really don't think so."
Melitta's arms were stronger than they looked. She gave a quick flick of the wrist, and the log sailed backwards, in a graceful arc, straight out of the tower window.
I think I must have been a little light-headed by then, because I just stood there stupidly for the few seconds it took for the wood to reach the ground. There was a distant thump when it landed in the courtyard. Melitta didn't even look to see where it hit.
"No," she went on, picking up a log in each hand. "I don't think it's enough wood at all." Two more jerks, and those logs went out the window as well. "Not nearly enough." Two more logs followed. "You're going to have to learn, Gwyneth, that I won't tolerate shirking." Two more. "You're going to have to learn to work." Two more. "Without complaint." Two more. "Without question."
That emptied the woodbin, and she dusted off her hands. "More wood. Get moving."
I looked her in the face then. This was absolutely forbidden, but if I hadn't done it, I think I would have howled or thrown a boot. Melitta's pupils were dilated, as if she was in the grip of terrible anger or terrible excitement. She expected me to crack- to scream or to fight, to resist somehow- and when that happened, she would resume what she had been doing the night before, exactly where she left off.
Of course, she didn't need to wait for me to crack. She could have started the beating whenever she wanted. But she preferred it when I gave her an excuse. It let her score a point in some elaborate game that she played with herself.
I bowed, too late, and backed out of the door. I wasn't going to win this, but I couldn't just surrender.
"Wood," I announced unceremoniously, and dumped it in the middle of the carpet.
Melitta's eyes swept down to the logs, the bark dust and mites that were now scattered over her rug, and then they swept back up to me. Her eyes were wells with a tiny point of light flickering in the depths. Her voice rasped as she gave the order: "Water."
"Water," I repeated, and snatched up the bucket next to the door. "Water," I muttered, and headed down the stairs again.
The anger was good; it pumped adrenalin through me, and that kept me going for a while. I clattered down six flights of steps at top speed, the empty bucket banging against my knees. All too soon, though, the last of my energy went out of me in one great whoosh. My aching legs buckled, and I sat down on the steps.
I went through my mental checklist: exhausted? Yes. In pain? Yes. Hungry? Hell yes.
In short- a real bitch of a day. Such days are common, when you work for a real bitch of a queen. But you never really get used to them. I never did, anyway.
It wasn't safe to sit still for too long. I got up and began to move again, more slowly, while I weighed my options. There were only two. I could slip away and look for a place to hide and rest. If I was very lucky, I could find something to eat and maybe even take a nap. But sooner or later, someone would find me and turn me back over to Melitta and then- well. I flexed my shoulders and felt the pain roll through me, like one of the great foam-capped waves I saw in the distance through Melitta's window. I couldn't take another serious thrashing, not so soon after the last one.
Maybe that left me with only one option: to do what I was told, for as long as my limbs kept obeying me. Simple- but not at all easy. Melitta could keep me going up and down the stairs all day, if the fancy took her. She wouldn't even have to speak. She would only have to raise and lower one finger, over and over and over.
I filled my bucket in the courtyard well and lugged it back to the base of the tower. If I had gone straight up, without hesitating or thinking about it, maybe I could have made it, but I didn't go straight up. I looked far above me, to the cornice at the top of the tower, and all of my muscles screeched in unison: Not a chance.
And then I heard it: a gleeful, high-pitched titter.
It seemed vastly unfair that somebody- anybody- would be in the mood to laugh when I was so miserable. Still, it was a distraction, and that was something.
It seemed to be coming from the stables, to my right. I abandoned my bucket of water by the stairs and poked my head through the stable door.
I didn't understand right away what I was seeing. All I could make out at first was some vast mound of frills, quivering away in an empty stall. Best I can describe, it looked like a giant levitating plate of dessert. As my eyes adjusted to the gloom, I realized what it was: a woman, leaning back against the wall, with her wide wide skirts flipped up over her head.
There was only one person in the castle who wore that kind of ridiculous frilly gown. It was my half-sister, the Lady Ariadne, heir to the house of Bain, ruler-to-be of the island of Bero.
There was no need for Ariadne to wear all that girlish lace. She had, after all, just turned seventeen- the celebrations went on for days and even I was given a cup of wine. She had her own dressmaker and all the seamstresses in the palace jumped four feet in the air when she walked by. Yet she refused to trade her frilly frocks for something that made her look her age.
I asked her once why the hell she didn't dress like a grown-up. She answered, "Because I like to know something people don't."
"What's that? How to shimmy around a ballroom wearing ten petticoats?"
"I know that I have a brain, and nobody else does. Except for you. People look at me, see mounds of pink fabric, and think, 'Aha! Girl! Must be stupid.' It's like camouflage."
Maybe it was like camouflage, but not when she was backed up against a stable wall, tittering, with her skirts flung over her shoulder. The frills kind of stood out.
Only then did I see what was making my sister squeal. There was a woman there with her, a lean brown woman, whipcord thin. I recognized her- had seen her before when I went to fetch Melitta's meals. One of the kitchen servants. She was about the same age as Ariadne and I, and she never said much but she had an interesting kind of face.
Now she had my sister backed up against the stable wall. She was moving rhythmically, in time to Ariadne's squeals, her hand buried somewhere I didn't want to see.
If it had been any noblewoman other than Ariadne standing there with her skirts over her head, I might have been worried about the kitchen girl. But I knew my sister well enough to know that she wouldn't force this kind of thing on anyone who didn't want it. And besides, there was all the giggling. However things had gotten to this point, they were both of them having a very good time.
Well. Good for them, I guessed. But it wasn't me and it wasn't going to be me, and now I'd wasted three precious minutes that weren't mine to waste in the first place. My lady Melitta was up in the tower counting the seconds until I returned with her damn washwater, and she'd make me pay for every last one. I started backing towards the door, keeping as quiet as I could. There was no point in distracting them.
Two steps away from the open air, my foot suddenly slipped and I went flying. The floor rushed up to meet me and I crashed heavily on my side.
For just an instant, I was too stunned and hurt to move. Then I was hit by a wave of total, all-consuming fury. What was this? Did the world hate me today? Couldn't I ever catch a break? I almost clawed my way to my feet and stalked out to the yard in a red-hot haze.
"Wait," called a voice from behind me. "Wait!"
I came very close to howling in frustration, but instead I stopped and turned around.
Ariadne whisked out of the stable, hurriedly knotting her sash back into place around her gown. At the sight of my face, her eyes snapped wide, so I must have been looking worse than usual.
"Gwyneth, what on earth happened to you?" she asked.
There were so many sarcastic things that I could have said in reply, I couldn't even pick one.
"My mother," Ariadne said a second later, answering her own question. "Gods on high, I'm going to strangle that woman one day."
She always said that. Lately, it had begun to piss me off.
"Why are you out here?" I asked. "Don't you have to get back to your...thing?"
Ariadne shook her head impatiently. "She went back to the kitchens. Anyway, that's not important. Are you bleeding?"
"I don't know. No, Ariadne, don't check. There's no time. I have to get back to your mother. She's waiting for water."
"You're hauling water up the stairs?"
"Well, I considered throwing water up the stairs, but I decided against it in the end. Because that would be stupid."
She ignored my sarcasm, as usual. "Gwyn, you're shaking like a leaf. How are you going to carry a bucket up a hundred steps?"
"I'm going to imagine what your mother will do to me if I don't."
That was the honest answer, but I should have known better, because it brought on Ariadne's heroic side. Her nostrils flared and she stood so straight that she seemed six inches taller.
She said: "Where's the bucket? I'll carry it for you."
This was a typical Ariadne plan. Generous and giving- and totally impossible.
"You can't carry it for me," I reminded her tightly. "What if Melitta sees you doing my work? What do you think will happen? We shouldn't even be talking right now. It's broad daylight!"
Officially, I wasn't supposed to talk to anyone but my lady Melitta. Ariadne was most definitely off limits. And though Ariadne rarely got into trouble, that could change very quickly if she was found hobnobbing with the bastard child. There didn't seem to be anyone watching us in the courtyard, but it was never safe to assume that. Our father Iason was so paranoid that he posted spies everywhere from the breweries to the brothels. And my friendship with Ariadne would only survive as long as the two of us could manage to keep it a secret.
"You're right," Ariadne said, after half-a-second's thought. "Hang on a minute. I'll get someone to help."
She turned, skirts swishing, but I caught her elbow. "I can't wait, Ariadne! I've already been down here too long!"
"So I'll hurry." She detached herself from me. "Wait. Please wait."
She bustled away so fast that the dust of the stableyard swirled around her. I began to stalk after her, but just then, a scullery boy staggered into the yard with an armload of dirty pots from breakfast. I had to retreat to a safe distance and pretend that I was picking a splinter from the bottom of my foot.
While I did that, I tiredly reviewed the conversation in my head. Ariadne had been kind and caring. I'd been a bit of a bitch. That had been happening a lot lately, and I wasn't sure how to fix it.
Ariadne was the one bright streak in the grey grime of my life. For the past eight miserable years, her loyalty to me had never wavered. She visited me as often as she could, to listen to my complaints and bind my cuts, to teach me and comfort me.
You might think it strange that she went to all the trouble- but that was just the way she was. She'd had every privilege that wealth could afford since the day she was born, but somehow it never managed to spoil her. She'd never bought into the stupid ethos of the ruling class. They could tell her all they liked that peasants were born with stunted brains and could only learn lessons taught with a whip. All that kind of thing rolled straight off of her, like water from a duck's back. The two of us were sisters. That was all that mattered to her.
Apparently, it mattered enough that she was willing to cut short a very nice escapade with a kitchen girl for my sake.
So why, why, why did I snap at her every time she tried to be nice?
But then again, why shouldn't she be nice? She'd had breakfast. If I had slept on swan feathers the night before and woken up to hot buttered crumpets, then I might be in a mood to help the downtrodden myself. And that was the thing. Grateful as I was to Ariadne, I was sick of being grateful. Sick of my neediness. Sick of never having anything to give her in return.
And as a minute passed, and then another and then another, my fuzzy feelings towards Ariadne began to disappear. I needed to go, I needed to go right away, and she was nowhere in sight. Maybe the kitchen girl had caught up with her in some dark passageway.
I was trying to muster the energy to start up the stairs when a tall shape jogged across the yard- a man in the hardened leather jerkin of a castle guard. I started to back away. It was habit, more than anything. Child servants, girls and boys both, know not to be caught alone with a soldier. But I'd seen this man around before, and I didn't have the sense that he was dangerous. With his hunched posture and his too-ready smile, he looked like the kind of person who would say "Sorry!" if you kicked him in the shin.
He didn't meet my eyes as he neared me. He just stooped and grabbed the bucket. Then he began to lope up the stairs, taking them two at a time, as water sloshed over the bucket's rim.
I didn't know how Ariadne had found him or what she had told him. Probably very little. When you were the heir of the most powerful lord in Kila, you didn't have to explain yourself very often. Like her mother Melitta, Ariadne could get her meaning across with a fingersnap.
As I headed slowly up the stairs behind the soldier, a question started to throb away in my brain like a headache. It was an old and hackneyed question, and it was something I tried not to think about, but I couldn't always help myself, especially when I was tired.
Why couldn't Ariadne get me what I really needed?
Why did she have to limit herself to bringing me bread and teaching me arithmetic? Why couldn't she tell her mother to back off? Why couldn't she persuade our father to send me to back to work in the kitchens, where I could scrub pots or peel potatoes in peace? And if none of that worked, why couldn't she get me out of here? Yes, we were on an island, but there were countless ships freckling the seas around us. There had to be one or two that would take me as a passenger, if she stomped her foot hard enough and often enough.
I tried not to think about this because there were reasons, and on an intellectual kind of level, I understood them. Ariadne's power had limits. She could boss the servants around the citadel all she liked, but security was our father's domain, and not even Ariadne could get someone in or out of the walls who hadn't been cleared by the gate guards. She had no money of her own- even her jewellery was locked away in the treasury at night- so she couldn't offer bribes.
As for trying to convince her parents of the errors of their ways- well, that was laughable. Once Lord Iason had made his mind up about something, you would have to use a sledgehammer to get him to change it. And there was no way of changing Melitta at all, short of assassination. In her seventeen years of life, I don't think that Ariadne had ever managed to persuade her parents to do anything they didn't want to do. In a way, she was at their mercy just as much as I was.
Yes, in a way. A well-fed, well-treated, well-educated kind of way. Maybe my sister deserved my sympathy but it was damn hard to believe it on a day like this.
Though my progress was stumbling, I'd almost reached the top of the tower. Three more turns of the staircase to go. As I paused for breath, the soldier who had helped me came loping down the steps. Sensibly, he hadn't taken the bucket all the way up the tower. He had left it on the stairs between floors so that I could retrieve it without anyone noticing. Hopefully.
His eyes were lowered so he wouldn't see me, and my instinct was to let him pass me by without saying a word. But for some reason- maybe because I was tired of feeling ungrateful, on top of everything else- I told him, "Wait."
He jolted to a halt, staring at me as though I'd suddenly dropped down from the ceiling, and there was something in his face that was close to panic. My instinct had been right. This man didn't want to be thanked, he wanted to get out of here before he got into trouble, but I had gone this far and there was no point in balking now.
I licked my lips. "Thank you," I said. "I mean it."
He ducked his head, as if to tell me that it had been his pleasure, but it really hadn't been and we both knew that. He was just a castle guard, and it would not be a good thing for him to be seen bounding up the steps towards the Lady Melitta's room. His career might not survive that discovery. He might not survive that discovery.
He should have left then, but for some reason he lingered, studying my face. The lump in his throat bobbed as he swallowed.
"I'm Whytock," he told me in a hoarse whisper. "Maybe some time I can help you again."
Just that. He gave another awkward nod, and the next second he was all but flying down the stairs, out of the tower and away from danger.
I kept up my slow painful progress to the top of the tower, retrieving my bucket from the steps as I went. As I did that, I wondered: just what the hell was Whytock's game? Was he sorry for me, anxious to lighten my load? Or was he trying to get in Ariadne's good books, hoping for rewards when she eventually came to power? Or maybe it was simpler than that- maybe he just wanted to get in my skirts. Or Ariadne's skirts, for that matter.
That was the problem with accepting gifts. There were always strings attached. People always wanted something back, even if it was something non-material, like gratitude or loyalty. Hell, even Ariadne would expect my life-long friendship in return for everything she'd done for me. It wasn't that friendship with Ariadne was a frightening prospect. She was my lifeline, and if I ever lost her I would probably break apart. But I wanted it to be my choice. There were days when I couldn't even tell whether what I felt for her was genuine love or just the fawning devotion of a hound towards a person who happened not to be holding a whip.
I'm embarrassed to admit this, but I was still deep in thought when I opened Melitta's door. I hadn't done something so stupid in years, but I was beyond tired by then. There was a grey film in front of my vision and I couldn't feel my own feet.
And that is why, when I lugged the bucket of water into my lady's chamber, I didn't see the stick of firewood which she had strategically placed in front of the door.
As a booby-trap, it was pretty weak. A kind of afterthought. She probably didn't have high expectations for it. She must have been pleasantly surprised when I barked both ankles on the log, flew headlong, and smashed into her carpet face-first.
After the first shock, I found I was lying in a spreading wet patch. The bucket rolled on its side, empty.
"My, my," came my lady's voice, syrup-sweet and low. "I suppose I'll be needing some more water, won't I?"
Well, I lost it right about then. I think that's understandable, but my timing was rotten. I should have kept it together until I was on my feet again. It's hard to land any convincing blows when you're lying flat on your face.
Somehow I managed to grab the bucket and sling it at Melitta, but it struck her only glancingly, and that's as far as I got. She pounced, grabbing me by her favourite handle: my hair. She wrenched it hard, forcing my head back, and then wrapped my long braid twice around her fist to make sure I couldn't go anywhere. She half-dragged and half-led me across the room, her hand held so low that I had to clamber after her on all fours.
Then she was leaning close into me and her breath was in my face. Sour wine and raisins. The veins in her eyes were inflamed. I knew she would cry soon. She always did.
"You're a rather stupid girl," she said. "Did you know that?"
I looked her straight in the eyes, because no matter what I did or didn't do, this day would not be getting any better. "You're a heinous bitch," I told her. "So I guess we're even."
She let out a sort of pant which I guess was a laugh. "Keep dreaming," she said. "I'll just keep waking you up."
Her hand was almost gentle when it wrapped around my wrist, but the next instant, she wrenched it upwards with brutal force, twisting my arm behind my back.
Several seconds before I felt it, I heard the bone snap.
I sat still for some time, as my heartbeat slowed. I wasn't certain what was real and what wasn't until I touched my wrist and found my garrotte wound around it, the braided sinew coiled loosely. Then I knew.
Melitta was dead. My father was dead. Whytock, the sheepish palace guard, had replaced my father as lord of the island of Bero. By all accounts, he was doing pretty well.
I wasn't in the castle where I grew up. I wasn't sleeping on a straw mat outside Melitta's bedchamber, or at the foot of her bed, or locked inside the stone closet in her room. I was on a beach two hundred leagues away, under a tent made of an old foresail.
The most brutal war in living memory was ripping apart the islands of Kila, and I was trying to end it.
And a pirate queen was asleep beside me.
I couldn't see my mistress's face- the canvas above us blocked the moonlight- but I could feel the easy pulse of her breathing. Good. At least one of us would be able to keep dreaming for a while longer.
I sat up, careful not to make any noise that would wake Darren, and slipped into my tunic. Then I groped my way out of the tent, into the chilly night air.