I first saw him when I was a child. I’m not sure how old I was-perhaps seven or eight-but I remember that it was the middle of summer. Our camps were awash in beetles and dusty, bare grounds, our city walls a never ending mass of wheat to the west and mud to the east. We were the lowest of the low in Zyonne, responsible for supplying most of the bricks for every city within it. The wheat was a mere necessity, a helpful bonus as it were, to our real task.
And that was how I saw him. It was mid-summer, the wheat whispering green and soft against our backs as the world rippled in front of us. He had come to inspect the production. His parade of courtiers passed by, laughing and jeering and spilling coppers on the earth. Even as a child, they disgusted me, amusing themselves with our struggles in life. Even then, I hated their cold stares, their bright colors, and their false caring. I hated them, but him... Him I loved.
The courtiers passed in a flurry of coppers and dust, and I barely cared to bring my nose out of the dirt. I was a child, and a builder child at that. I was a nobody, and rising from my bow would have been too much effort anyway. A shadow passed over me and stayed. After a few moments, I pushed myself up. He was beautiful in a way I never thought a man could be. The sun was just behind his head, but I could see him clearly. It seemed like the entire world faded away. And then, he dropped a little bundle in front of my face. I think someone tried to get it, but he stopped them. All I remember is picking it up, unlacing the ribbon, and watching as the cloth fell away to reveal the most delicious-looking piece of cheese I had ever seen. “Eat it wisely, Princess.” And he left.
I decided then that one day I really would be a princess.
I was born a slave, free only in name. My people served the minority, a never-ending cycle of chains and whipping and death. We were different from the Royals, fatally so. Thousands of years before, according to legend, we had all been the same. We lived in peace, immortal beings whose only purpose in life was to enjoy it. Father told stories of the smell of the Pre-Betrayal air, a mix of cinnamon and oranges, with a sky tinted maroon and a people seven feet tall. We children sat around him, enthralled. Even the Royals were tainted now, still immortal but shorter and stuck in our ugly world. His story always ended abruptly just before the Betrayal.
And so we were slaves, known to the courtiers as the flawed. Amongst ourselves we had our levels of class: lowest were my class, the builders; then, the fixers; then, the cleaners; and lastly, the servants. In my child’s eyes, the servants were practically royalty in all but lifespan. They were glamorous, living in luxury while I lived in a pig sty. I quickly learned that even they, no matter how high they reached, remained slaves to this unspoken curse.
The world was cruel to us but we went about our lives. We were born, lived, and died with our feet in the mud. Our fingers were stained with the red dirt, nails a never-changing rusty hue. Our skin was bronzed from days in the sun, and our backs were laced with our scars. We were not a silent people. No, our slavery had not brought us to repentance. Looking back, I wish we had been broken of spirit. Perhaps then, more of us would have been saved. But, we were proud. Even the builders had their arrogance. Why, without them, the entire country would be made of nothing but twigs! I cannot believe how stupid we were. Again and again, we tried to overthrow the Royals. Again and again, we were forced into submission. Before I saw Him, I had already survived four revolts. Most of my family did not.
And thus I begin my story. For without an understanding of just how despicable I was, no one will understand what I have become.
Without being a slave, I would never have become a princess.
The whip cracked through the air and I flinched. “Only two-hundred thirty-five bricks today, girl?” The overseer snapped the whip again, catching my cheek. Just barely, I kept my balance. I ground my jaw, trying to ignore the stinging in my face. The man chuckled darkly behind me. Add chaff, stomp, pull out, press. Add chaff, stomp, pull out, press.
The chant ran through my head like a never-ending song, my feet moving in time to its rhythm. I refused to give him the pleasure of seeing my fear.
My partner, my stomper, lay face down in the mud, her blouse laced through with red and her skirts askew. She would be dead within the hour. I avoided her glazed-over gaze, focusing on my own job. The man snapped the whip again, breath hot on my neck. “Did you hear me, Builder? Or do you want to end up like your friend here?” The mud squelched around my feet, sucking and pulling them back. I ignored him. Anything I said was sure to only add to his fun. Add chaff, stomp, full out, press.
Suddenly I was jerked back, scalp stinging, to look at my abuser. He grinned down at me through rotted teeth, his skin dark with the tattoos of his profession. Even without them, he was an ugly bastard. “I know what might make you go faster.” His hand drifted to his laces.
I spat in his face.
“Really, Kat, did you have to spit at him?” I cringed from my sister’s reproving gaze, ashamed as I sat on the edge of our table. The firelight caught in her hair, making it look like a halo of gold around her head. She stood from her crouch beside the fire, annoyed, and carried the pot of water carefully to the table. I watched her hands swaddled in faded blue fabric as they gripped the hot iron. “Of all the things...” she muttered, setting it down. Brushing her hands across her apron, she pointed to the bed. “Well, go on. We need to take care of these now.”
Obediently, I pulled my shift off and laid belly-down on the bed, biting back tears. My back was cold in the drafts from outside, the gashes still seeping slowly. “Like you didn’t expect it.” I attempted a grin and she frowned at me.
“This isn’t something to joke about, Kathryn. I mean, really. I can’t keep bandaging you up like this.” I could feel her eyes burning a hold through my back as she gently dabbed at the lashes. “Sometimes it’s better to accept what they offer, rather than be beaten like this.” I must have tensed, because she rested a hand on my arm. “Relax. I know you know that, but you wouldn’t be my little Kat if you listened.”
“Whipping is better than rape, Liza. Any day.” I hissed through clenched teeth as she worked her way down my back. “You think I didn’t see how you changed after what happened to you?”
I felt her pause. “We’re the flawed, Kat. It’s part of our curse to bear whatever the Royals choose to do to us.” Her touch was soft but her voice was steel. This wasn’t a new argument for us. “I’ve accepted that. I wish you would, too. It would make things so much easier.”
I rolled my eyes and she tapped the back of my head. “How do you see that?”
She giggled, laying the rag by the bucket. It dripped red onto the worn wooden table.“Someone has to be your mother.”
The thought was a sobering one. I bit my lip in thought as she began applying the salve. “It’s a stupid curse, you know.” Liza stayed silent. I rested my cheek on my arm, thinking. A few minutes passed like this, the familiarity almost soothing me into sleep. Finally Liza harumphed and stood up from the bed. Gingerly, I sat and met her gaze. “Why do you put up with me?”
She smiled softly, wrapping the cloth around my shredded body. “You’re my little sister, Kat. If I didn’t put up with you, I’d have to put up with myself.” Her smile twisted slightly, and I caught a glimpse of the pain she always hid. When she was done, she touched my cheek softly. “Please be more careful next time.”
I nibbled my lip again, trying to hold back my words. “It is a stupid curse, you know. I don’t care if we’re flawed or not. We aren’t just some low-life whores they can use and abuse and throw away.”
She straightened slowly and turned to face me, spoon dripping from the stew she’d been stirring. I didn’t like the pitying look she had. “Oh little Kat... We’ve been at this for how long now? You’re still clueless.” She slid the spoon back into the pot and sat next to me on the bed. I rested my head on her shoulder and she pushed a curl behind my ear. “We are below whores, love. We are the bottom of the bottom. I don’t know how many times I have to tell you that.” She patted my leg gently, then poked my shoulder. “I think sometimes you ask just to hear me say it again.”
I watched her stir, her face unconciously twisted into a frown. Somehow, she still managed to be beautiful. I ran a hand through my own hair, feeling the curls pull at my fingers. “Maybe I do. I’m not sure why you still answer me.” She grinned up at me, the years melting off her face for a moment. I sighed and rested my hands on the edge of the bed, careful not to pull at the bandaging. “It’s not right that we’re on the bottom. If it weren’t for us, Zyonn would live in houses of sticks.” The familiar Builder’s motto slid off my tongue easily and she raised a brow. “I doubt the overseers are really even Royals!”
She slapped me. Stunned, I sat back. My sister had slapped me. I stared at her, speechless. Her face was white and she stepped away from me like I was cursed. I hadn’t even seen her move. “Never...never
say that again. Do you understand?”
“Why? Because it’s true?” I cringed, knowing I should stop talking. I waited for Liza’s usual calm reply but she stayed quiet. I struggled to my feet, groaning as the bandages caught on raw skin. Confused, I reached out for her but she flinched away. “I’m sorry, Liza. You know how I am... I’m sorry.”
Her face was something I’d never forget. Beneath the horror and disgust was a pain that hurt far worse than my lashes. Wordless, she turned and ran out the door. I was left staring into the darkness of the night. The door caught in the wind and slammed shut again, leaves and dust swirling in its wake.
She’d left me. The little girl inside me collapsed, scared. Liza had never left me angry before. Even after our family was gone, she’d never left me without telling me where she was going. And the look on her face... I had to find her. Grateful for the numbing herbs, I struggled into my shift and the softest, oldest dress I could find.
The smoke of the little hut followed me out, pungent on the night air. All the windows were covered, the only proof of life the cracks of light around the doors and the plumes of smoke from their roofs. I gritted my teeth against the chill autumn air and headed towards the center of the village.
I knew where she would be. Builder’s Brooke was just big enough for our own temple, and Liza found the place soothing. I found it disturbing, with its shrines to the living and its dedicated followers.
As I walked, I kept my head down. My act of defiance was sure to make me a popular target, both with the rebels and with the overseers. My skirts swept softly against the top of my boots as I walked and for the first time, I wished Builder’s Brooke were smaller. A group of men stared at me as I passed. One tipped his hat mockingly. “Headed to finish the job, are ye?”
I ignored him, staring at the ground in front of me. Please be there, Liza. Please.
I hurried the last few steps to the crude little builing. Gently, I pushed the temple door open and stepped inside. The light was dim, only a few candles lit before the image of the King and Queen. I shivered at their stoic expressions, the light catching on the paint and making them look almost alive. My hope died. She would have been before the image of the Queen, her patron goddess. Frantically, I tried to think of where else she would have gone.
“She’s daft, you know.”
I froze, suddenly cold. I knew that voice, but it had never sounded so cruel before. Quickly I slipped behind the curtain of the Prince’s tiny chambers just as the door opened. Liza swept in with the wind curling her hair and flipping her dress. The candlelight lit up her face, dusting her cheeks a soft gold and her hair a brilliant flaxen color. She frowned prettily up at whoever was following her. Carefully, I moved myself so I could see the other portion of the room.
“She’s not worth your time, sir.”
I shuddered as she laid her hand against a leathered chest. It was the head overseer. Confused, I pulled the curtain slightly farther apart. His tattooed face stared blankly down at her. “Woman, you have nothing else I want. I want
her.” He pushed brutally past her, pulling out a candle from the King’s basket and deftly lighting it. I caught the overwhelming smell of man and held my breath. He was inches from my hiding spot. Dark eyes rested for a moment on the King’s face, hungry and empty. Yet again, I couldn’t help but think that these men weren’t Royals. When I’d seen the Prince, he’d looked nothing like this empty, twisted creature. He stood and grabbed my sister by the arm. “You are useless to me. Bring her to me.”
Smoothly, Liza turned his grip into an embrace. He frowned down at her but didn’t move. She smiled slightly, hand sliding down his chest. “What could a builder like her do better than I can? She’s marked, cursed with the green eyes of one of the truly flawed.” She turned, eyes focused almost desperately on the image of the Queen. “I look almost identical to the Queen herself. How many times have you had one who looks like Her?”
“Hundreds of times.” He pushed her off, emotionless. “You have nothing else I want, woman,” he repeated, eyes travelling down her body. I shivered, terrified for my sister. “Unless you have something better to offer me, I will have her this time. Enough of your stupid games.”
I sat back, the Prince’s basket pressing into my hip. So that’s what this was all about. Oh Liza... For how many years had she been taking my punishments? My mind shied away from all the times I’d been beaten or whipped. To think she’d taken it to protect me... At least now I knew she agreed with me: the curse wasn’t an excuse.
“I might have something more you’d be interested in.” I brought myself back to the present. Her voice matched his now, completely different than the previous lusty woman’s voice. Suddenly I wondered if the sister I knew was the real Liza. Quickly, I banished the thought.
“And what would that be?” He sounded almost bored.
“Three gold royes in payment for her to remain pure.”
I gasped. Between the both of us, we’d never seen
more than twenty silver drakas. Three gold royes? The amount was mind-boggling. The man snorted. “Aye, lass, I’ll take your money. Only problem is you don’t got any.”
I heard her skirts rustle as she walked to the door. “See the slaver in the morning. We have a deal, then?”
It was silent for a moment. I held my breath, praying he would call her bluff. “Aye, we have a deal.”
The candle wavered slightly as I sobbed. The Prince stared blankly down at me, but I had no where else to go. She was a fool. A damned fool! I couldn’t breathe for the tears. It was all too much. The thought of what she’d done for me left me weak. One corner already reeked of vomit and I offered another pathetic prayer of forgiveness for defouling His place. Somehow I didn’t think the painting would mind, but I said it anyway. Liza would have been proud. I tried to muffle my sobs in the folds of my skirt. Why? The Prince was supposed to be the defender of His people. Couldn’t He protect me Himself? Why did she have to do it? Or was I truly too cursed to be considered one of His? And for that matter, why didn’t the Queen protect my sister?
I sat up, tears still coming unbidden. His face was blurry through my tears, but it was the same face from so long ago. Amber eyes stared out at me from beneath carefully sculpted eyebrows. His face was smooth, the tawny brown of a fresh-baked loaf save for his beard. The painting didn’t do Him justice. There was only the slightest hint of the laughter in His eyes with no attention given to the curve of a smile pulling at his lips or the sharp outline of His jaw. I took a shuddering breath, suddenly angry. “You’re just a painting. Somewhere, you’re a real man, but you’re useless. You’re just like the rest of us, except you get the title of Original.” I blew out the candle and stood abruptly. “For fourteen years, I’ve prayed to you and you couldn’t even protect my sister.”
I ran outside, letting the wind dry the tears on my face. I fought back fresh sobs. The earlier ones had torn open my back again and it was a mass of pain. Remembering who had paid the price, I took a deep breath and let the bandage pull tight. I bit back a yelp of pain. If this was all I could do, I would relish it. Lights danced briefly before my eyes and I stumbled into the wall of a hut. Determined, I took a deep breath and headed southwest straight-backed and dizzy with my punishment.
The night was still dark, the moon a mere sliver above the village. Everyone was asleep now, children and mothers and fathers huddled together against the cold. I weaved my way through the huts, careful to stay quiet. Soon, I could here the creaking of harnesses and the soft whuffing of animals. I slipped into the shadow of the last hut. The slaver’s caravan was packing up even now. A bright head was shoved into one of the wagons and I bit my lip. Liza.
So she had sold herself for me. I watched with a mixture of horror and numb calmness. I would find her and save her, somehow.
“Weel, wot do we’s ha’ here, eh Princess?” I spun around, losing my balance as pain lanced up my back. A man grabbed my hair and pulled me up to meet his eyes. “A rebel, eh? Ye’s make pretteh wenches, ye do.” He grinned and slapped my back. I passed out.
The wagon jerked and I lurched into the lap of the prisoner next to me. Vacant eyes stared down at me. I shuddered and pushed myself weakly off her knees. Rain pounded the walls of our travelling prison, dripping through poorly sewn seams to splat in pools of excrement. My chains clinked as I pulled my knees close to my chest. It had begun early the previous night and our fresh air had been promptly cut off, the heavy cover pulled over the wagon. Hours of bodily waste and sweat fermented beneath it, creating a swelter pit of stench. I sighed, leaning against my knees. The wagon tipped again and I hissed as my back hit the wooden frame. Skin and scabs pulled against the rough wood and I fought the wave of dizziness.
“Nasty uns, those are.”
“Weren’t so bad before I got on here.” I swallowed, trying to keep the bile down. I didn’t dare look at the post behind me, for fear of seeing my back left upon it.
“Wot wos it sold ye, girlie?” A grandfatherly man slid closer, one eye swollen shut. “Are ye a witch or jus’ someun’s unlucky turget?”
I watched him through teary eyes. “Neither.”
He blinked, surprised, then siddled closer. He eyed my back and nodded sagely. “A criminal, then. Or mebbe an overseer’s woman. Ye’re not un I’d pass up, by th’ King’s own balls.”
I curled tighter, entirely too aware of the way my shift clung to me. “That’s rather vulgar, don’t you think?”
He winked at me with his good eye. “Nay, girlie. This-” he waved grandly at the over-stuffed wagon- “is vulgar. That
is just fact.”
I grunted, amused despite myself. “‘Suppose you’re right.”
He grinned and I winced. His mouth was full of broken teeth and bleeding gums. “‘Course I am, girlie.” He inched closer, his stench overwhelming me. “So wot are ye in here fur then? If’ns ye’re no criminal, as yer back says, ye’ve got to be awfully bad in bed.” He grinned at my peeved look.
to be here. What’re you here for: lechery?” I glared hotly at him, deciding he wasn’t so grandfatherly after all.
His grin widened and his eyebrows vanished into his hair. “Fiery, are we? Aye, I like meh girl fiesty, but I’m noot un to tek advantage o’ somethin’ like’n this. Jus’ statin’ facts, girlie.” He settled next to me. Warily, I scooted closer to my female companion. He offered a gnarled hand. “Patty’s th’ name, girlie. Meh, I wos sold by meh daughter for the small crime o’ breathin’.” He shrugged, resting his head against a beam. The wagon hit a rut and he fell sideways, chains smashing painfully into my elbow. “M’ apologies, girlie.”
I nodded, in too much pain to do more than grunt. Finally, I had calmed my breathing to mere ragged gasps. “I’m...Kat. Why...Why did she sell you?”
He sighed and flicked a piece of King-knows-what off his forearm. “Seems it’s meh fault she hasn’ food.” I must have looked dubious because he flashed me that awful smile again. “She has yet t’ learn that not e’ery babe they seed in her has to live. Four, if’n I remember correct.” He spat, a string dribbling down his cheek. I rested my cheek against my knee, listening so I could focus on something other than the pain. “Bloody woman’d rather raise Royal scum that save ‘er own da. Why, wiffout meh, she’d ne’er been born.”
I nodded numbly, feeling every pebble along the road. His was certainly an unfair punishment, unlike mine. “Chose” to be here... I deserve to be here.
I looked at the others around me, faces ashen and eyes empty. I was beginning to look like them. It scared me. Patty’s voice grounded me, talking away like I was listening. This is just a bad dream. That’s all. Just a dream.
The woman next to me relieved herself and I cringed at the smell. It seeped around my bottom but I made no move to get away. This wasn’t the first time. A really, really bad dream... One that I won’t wake up from.
“Bloody overseers musta beat ye, eh? Slavers know better than to damage thur properties.”
Please be a dream. In the name of the Prince, please be a dream.
Tears slid silently down my cheeks. My back was a wall of pain, so intense I could barely breathe for fear of the pain. My limbs ached from days of sitting and my wrists and ankles were raw from the shackles. My shift clung to every inch of me, caked in things I cared not to dwell upon. And Liza wasn’t here. Another tear slipped down my cheek.
Something soft wiped it off my chin. I glanced over, meeting Patty’s gaze. “Thur now, girlie. Ye’s still young. Ye can do weel in these places.” He rubbed the tear between his fingers, quiet for a moment. I took a shuddering breath, waiting. Finally he looked back at me, grim acceptance in his eyes. “At least ye’ll get a whore house. I’m destined for the barracks. Fron’ line o’ practice, I am.”
It took me a moment to understand what he was saying, and then I stared at him in horror. “But... you’re still people! I thought they couldn’t hurt you, the slavers.”
He grimaced, shh-ing me. “Nay, girlie. The slavers can’t. Once I’m bought, it be up to meh owners how I be used. I saw th’ list. Patty O’Herran - trenches. Living turget practice I be.”
Horrified, I looked around the wagon. Everyone was sick or old. The woman next to me slumped against the canvas, hair plastered to her face. “Are...all of you...” I couldn’t finish my thought.
He nodded solemnly, patting my arm consolingly. “Aye, girl. you’re the lucky one here, gettin’ out alive. We be protected until we step off’n the auction block.”
For once, I agreed that a brothel was a better option. My companion lifted her head and I flinched at the look on her face. I leaned closer to Patty, realizing that the others were all looking at me with the same hungry, angry looks. “So...you’re protected until you’re sold?” I pulled my knees closer, a plan beginning to form. Sweet Prince, if this isn’t a dream, help me get out alive.
“Bit slow, are we? Tha’s wot I said.”
I grinned slightly, feeling a strange madness fill my mind. “Not slow, Patty. Just making sure. With eighteen of us, we should be able to make it.”
He watched me shrewdly, face lopsided by his swollen cheek. “Wot be ye thinkin’, girlie?”
“Eighteen against six aren’t great odds. Eighteen against six not allowed to touch us? I say we have a chance.”
The door flap opened and a rugged slaver poked his head in. “Bloody foul stench you lot make.” He pulled back outside and yanked at the door, sliding the cover off. The sunlight was blinding. My eyes burned with it, but my lungs welcomed the fresh air. After a few moments my eyes began to adjust. We looked horrible, covered in the muck we’d lived in for days so that there wasn’t a spot clean on us. The other slaves stared at our captors, a mix of fear and indifference. I suppressed my momentary pride at their acts, schooling my face into a mask of pain. It wasn’t difficult. We had worked the plan down to the last detail. Even now, I saw one of the other women tighten her grip on her chains. Once we were all on the ground, we would start.
The slaver grabbed the first prisoner, a girl no more than fifteen, and hiked up her shift. I bit back a gasp, too afraid to risk the plan. She barely struggled, too scared to move. He leered at her before grabbing something offered to him from behind. I had a momentary glimpse of something glowing before she screamed. “Gimme the next one.” Sobbing, the girl fell to the ground, writhing in pain. Even before the smell of burnt flesh hit my nose, I knew what was coming.
The others began to stir, panic spreading. Patty gripped my knee, bony knuckles white. “I’d thot it a myth, th’ branding.”
Gently, I squeezed his hand. “Branded or not, we’ll get out of this.” He nodded, barely, face as white as his hands under the grime.
I was last. I don’t know why. Perhaps they were saving me for last, or perhaps it was luck. The slaver eyed me and paused. “Mmm... Road’s not been too rough on this one, Brean.” He ran a finger down my cheek, black eyes cold. Were they all such sadists? I could hear the brand sizzle against my skin but I was too far gone to feel it. Thank the King for the pain.
I stumbled as he let me go, my forehead colliding with Patty’s shoulder. Slowly, ever so slowly, I was beginning to feel the fire. The sob caught me by surprise. I was watching someone else collapse, arms and legs spread out across the ground screaming in pain. I didn’t even have the strength to curl. Harshly, my chains were yanked and half-dragged, half- crawling I began the walk to our pens.
My mind was blissfully unaware of how I got there. The others were in just as bad of shape as I was when I finally came to my senses. The pen was slightly larger than the wagon, wooden sides streaked with dark stains I didn’t want to identify. Patty nudged me gently and I rolled my head over to look at him. “Don’ think yer plan’s gonna work, girlie.”
I sighed, too weak to shake my head. “No, Patty. I think we’re done this time.” He nodded and I thought I saw something wet disappear into his scraggle of a beard. I nudged him back and managed a small smile. “And it’s Kathryn. If I’m going to be sold as meat, you might as well call me that. Someone should, one last time.”
He sniffed, blinking his good eye. “Patrick, m’lady Kathryn. And it’s en honor t’ go t’ th’ butcher’s block with ye.”
I stared at Patty’s back as we slowly made our way to the auction block. The sun hovered just over the roofs of Cardeas. Bitterly, I examined the city called Friendship. Royals and Flawed alike crowded the block, faces excited to see the next prisoner. Disgusted, I turned away from them, watching Patty’s gnarled muscles move under skin flecked with age. He stepped slowly onto the first step and paused, suddenly turning to face me. “Take this.” He shoved something in my hand and turned to walk the rest of the steps before I could speak.
The setting sun brushed coppery fingers against his face and he stood tall on the block. The wind whispered through filthy hair. He raised his chin defiantly. I gripped the bundle tightly, throat suddenly dry. I blinked back tears as I watched him stand strong against their bids. He stared out across the crowd, daring them to meet his eye. In moments, he was sold. Proudly, he walked off the other end and vanished from sight at the side of a Royal soldier. He was gone. I bit my lip, fighting to keep my composure. He had held on until the end. The block seemed smaller, darker somehow with him gone, and I realized that I had admired him. He’d befriended the most unlikely person in that wagon and treated me like someone who valued. Like my father would have.
I tasted iron in my mouth and took my own place on the block.
The sun dipped below the buildings and my audience’s faces slipped into shadow. On the outskirts, a crier declared me the last sale of the day. The others were herded away. I lifted my chin, ignoring its perilous wobble. The package pressed against my palm, giving me what little courage I had left. “Number 47!” the auctioneer shouted. I flinched and gritted my teeth. Was Liza somewhere bearing this same torture? I looked out over the crowd, glad I couldn’t see their faces. Were they watching me stand here almost naked in the cool evening air? I could feel every breath of wind, painfully aware of just how exposed I was. “We begin at thirty silver drakas. Thirty drakas, thirty drakas, anyone for thirty drakas?” He raised one of my arms, pressing the shift against my waist. “Still of good age, with solid muscle.” I tuned him out, unable to bear his words. His hands drifted over various parts of my body, outlining my good qualities and ignoring the obvious flaws. I shied away as he gripped my chest and was rewarded with a solid punch in the gut. The crowd cheered and I learned to stay still.
The price steadily rose to one gold roye. I sighed, relieved, until my bidder stepped into the lantern light. He was cruelly handsome and I was suddenly sure I wouldn’t live through the night. He had the look of a hunter, deadly graceful and entirely focused on me. I took a step back and the auctioneer prodded me reprovingly in the back. “One gold roye, one gold roye! Any higher bids? C’mon, folks, the wee lass is worth at least another draka.” The man stepped closer and licked his lips. I tried to pull away from his gaze, but he held me. I couldn’t get away from him. My skin crawled.
“Five gold royes!” The crowd gasped and even the auctioneer was too stunned to keep me in my upright position. I stumbled from sheer relief at the shock that crossed my hunter’s face. I followed his look and saw a young man pushing through the crowd. In the darkness all I could see was his dark hair.
“Sold! Sold for five gold royes!” The auctioneer almost choked on his own words.
Stunned, I allowed myself to be led down the stairs to meet my new master. The hunter’s eyes bore into me, following me as I stopped at the young man’s side. I wrapped my arms tightly around myself and stayed still as my chains were undone. Money was exchanged for papers, and then he grabbed my wrist and pulled me into the shadows of Cardeas.
We’d gone only a block when he pulled me into a doorway, my back pressed painfully against the door. His hand muffled my shout and his beard brushed my ear. “Be quiet.”
Angrily, I pushed at his hand. Quiet? With you shoving splinters into my spine?
His hand was like steel though, crushing against my mouth. I couldn’t move it.
“Search the streets for them.” I froze. That voice matched his face, smooth and deadly. I could see it in my mind, watching me as I stood on the auction block. I pressed farther into the door, feeling the panic rising. My new master shifted, hiding me completely behind his huge frame. “Liam won’t fight you,” the man said, voice dripping with contempt. “Take the girl and bring her to me.”
Footsteps passed us and my master tensed, pressing closer. I bit hard into my lip, trying to keep my pain silent. His shirt scratched my nose and his belt dug into my hips. I bit back a gasp of pain as it hit my branding. The minutes crawled by. I could hear the other man’s boots clicking on the paving stones, pacing back and forth. Liam shifted the hand braced by my head slightly, his cloak slipping and brushing my cheek. I caught a whiff of pine and soap and faint sweat. The footsteps continued pacing, waiting. Part of me was surprised he couldn’t smell me, for all I reeked. I felt a moment of pity for my master, then dismissed it. He’d bought me, so he must have expected it. The thought sent tingles down my spine. Bought. I was bought. The thought vanished as Liam flinched, rapidly approaching footsteps echoing down the street.
“They’re nowhere, m’lord.” Behind Liam’s gloved hand, I blinked. M’lord? Was that monster a Royal?
“We searched all the way up to the gates with no sign of them.” The man cursed loudly, then muttered something to the pair. “Yes Lord Aaron.” The guards left and, after another moment of subdued curses, the mysterious Lord Aaron left as well.
Liam waited a few more moments before pulling away from me. He stepped back into the street, looking up and down. Dark as it was, I could just make out his profile. He had a high forehead and a long, almost straight nose. Near the middle was a bump, like it had once been broken. I took a deep breath, trying to calm my racing heart. His fingers tightened momentarily on the sides of the doorway. Then, he stepped completely into the street, hands on hips as he slowly turned. The sudden lack of warmth startled me and I shivered. “We need to go now.”
I nodded, unable to stop shaking now that it had started. He motioned for me to join him and I tried. The wind blew through my tattered shift, needles against my skin. Again, I tried to step forward but my body refused to move. All the energy was drained from my limbs. The fear and the pain had left me pathetically weak. He stepped back into the shadow of the doorway, frowning down at me. “I c-can’t m-m-move.” My teeth chattered loudly in my skull and I snapped my mouth shut. The noise was deafening. Still frowning, he swept the cloak off his back and around my shoulders. I gasped as the heavy wool settled on my wounds, but the warmth was so much better.
Gently he toughed my forehead and I flinched back, bumping my head into the door. “You’re burning up.”
“I’m freezing,” I said dumbly. I pulled the cloak tighter, wincing at the pain. How could I be burning if I felt so cold? It’s a fever, little Kat. You know that.
I nodded dumbly, not at all surprised to hear Liza’s quiet words. My body felt like jelly and my head was beginning to swim. A fever. That would explain it.
Liam wrapped the cloak around me tighter, bending to look into my eyes. “I need you to walk for me. It’s not far. Do you think you can do that for me?” His hands burned through the cloak. I nodded, not at all sure if I could. He stepped into the street and I followed him, a wool-swaddled ghost. The fabric brushed my ankles and I absently thought about how tall my new owner was. Bare feet stumbled across rough paving stones, stubbing toes and slashing through freezing water. The street was quieter and I realized it was more of an alley. Compared to Builder’s Brooke this was a highway, but Cardeas was much more refined. Refined? It has murderers as lords.
I shivered within my coccoon. I stumbled again, feeling like I was walking on sleeping legs. His hand steadied me, guiding me somewhere. The exhaustion of the day hung on me. Visions of the slave pens and the auction block floated through my mind. Had I always walked like I was wading through mud? I stared at the pale flashes near the ground, enthralled. Were those my feet? They didn’t look muddy. Brown, yes, but not muddy...
I stumbled again, wrenching out of his grip and collapsing on the ground. The stones were cool against my cheek and I could feel his cloak soaking through near my hand. Suddenly I was off the ground and held tight in his arms. My knees and palms stung from where I’d fallen, but I no longer had to move. Exhausted, I rested my head against his chest. A button pressed against my ear and I could hear something beating against it. His heart.
I burrowed my face into his chest, trying to get away from the wind. Liam tucked the cloak around me, his voice rumbling against my forehead. “You need to stay warm. You’re going into shock.” His strides lengthened. “Try to keep it around you as much as you can. We’re almost there.” Obediently, I pulled it tighter around my chest. The smells were nice, and there was even a little citrus to it. I breathed it in deeply. So much better a smell than my own stink.
The world spun around me. Even in his arms, I felt like I was on the verge of falling. Was there an edge of the world, or was that in my mind? I didn’t remember Cardeas moving so quickly. The pain was gone and only my shaking remained. Even with his arms squeezing my back, I didn’t feel anything. I clenched my hands, trying to stop the shaking. His heart hammered against my head. Lord Aaron’s eyes burned into my mind, and then I heard that beautiful bid. But why? Why would he have bought me for so much? I closed my eyes and tried to breathe. It seemed like an incredibly important question. Did he realize I was damaged? I sighed, unable to focus my jumbled thoughts. At least I’d be dead soon. I felt slightly upset that I’d never know the answer to my questions, but death would be blissfully dark and warm and still. My jaw hurt from shivering. This was a much more pleasant way to die, spinning on a cloud. Poor Patty... He should have let the overseers whip him, too. Maybe they still would, and he could float on a cloud to die.
“Martha.” My body jolted as Liam kicked something. It sounded wooden. “Martha, open up. I know you’re home.”
I breathed deeply of the cloak, lost in my thoughts. Poor Patty... It was probably best, really, that he wasn’t whipped. A nice, quick death would be much more noble for him. He’d die facing his death. And the pain would go away when he died. Quick and easy. No need to heal. My head lolled against his arm too heavy for my neck. Whipping was definitely a criminal’s death, painful and festering, with a coward’s way out. Face death without pain. I grinned stupidly. Coward. Definitely a coward.
“Oy, man, wot ye brought in me house now?”
I giggled at the rasping voice. Kathryn, that is not polite.
I grinned wider, knowing Liza was right. But still. “Sounds like a witch, Liza,” I mumbled, giggling to myself. My mouth felt full of cotton.
Candlelight hit my eyes and I groaned, rolling away from it. Liam set me on something that felt like a bed, but the straw had turned to feathers. “Tha’s nice...” My voice was slurred and my tongue wouldn’t obey me.
“Shh, woman.” The witch leaned over me and I stared up at her. Did all witches have green eyes? Maybe that was why I was more cursed than Liza, my green eyes. They’re more blue than green, Kat. Stop hoping for a curse.
I ignored Liza.
Gentle hands poked my face, felt my forehead, and drifted down my body. She cleared her throat and I tried to focus on her. She cleared her throat again and propped fuzzy arms on her hips. “Well then.” She didn’t sound so witchy now. Could she change her voice? “Out.” She flapped at my master. “Or, at least go sit by the fire, will ye?”
I wouldn’t pass ye up, by the King’s balls if’n I cud look et ye.
I groaned and rolled my head. Patty and
Liza? They both needed to leave me alone. And Liam needed to stay by the fire. I wasn't so far gone that I wanted him looking at me.
Strong arms propped me up, pulling the cloak from under me. The air was cool against my damp back. “For the love of the Queen.” She swore under her breath and pulled me up more. My head flopped on my chest. “Ye’re a fool, m’lord. If she lives through th’ night, ye’ll be lucky. Waste of money, she is.” My shift tugged at something and I frowned. It was gentle enough, but those weren’t supposed to be-- Something popped.
I screamed. A cloth was shoved in my mouth but I screamed through it. Liam stared at me, wide-eyed, from the fire. The witch swore loudly. “Stop lookin’ like a fish and hold her, dammit!” I writhed, trying to get out of the woman’s reach. It felt like my skin was being shredded. He stood dumbly at the bed then, blurry through tears. I had no idea how he’d gotten there but I didn’t care. Her grip was tight on my arms, the pain momentarily stopped. “Liam, hold her
I jerked forward, eyes shut, and someone else grabbed my arms, forcing me belly-down onto the bed. The feathers stabbed through the mattress and into my skin. My shoulders ached from his grip. I twisted harder. The pulling had started again. Were they skinning me alive? A weight settled on my legs and I shrieked. “Stop! Stop moving,” he hissed.
The woman snarled a curse. I screamed, the cloth muffling me. My shoulder was on fire. “Shaddup, man, an’ jus’ hold her. She’s not listenin’ now.” Hot water seared my back. It burned! Oh by the Three, it burned. I sobbed, slobber running down my chin. He kept my arms pinned and my legs still. I couldn’t escape their torture. “Careful now...” I could hear it, hear my skin ripping from my back. “By the Queen...This must be days old...” And then it was done. Sobbing, I collapsed on the bed, shoulders and back spasming. Someone pulled the cloth out and I dry-heaved. They dabbed at my mouth, gentle. “I need to get her clean, Liam. Ye’ve seen the state she’s in.”
Sobs still wracked my body, the pain rolling through every inch of me. “If ye expect to have a slave tomorrow, ye best be helpin’ me with her.”
The weight shifted off me. “Do I have a choice?” He sounded tired. “What do you need?”
The woman snorted. “Get the basin and a clean shift from the line. Poor thing’ll be swimming in it, but she’ll be dry.” I tried to breathe through the sobs. “And grab ye one of old Robert’s shirt and pants, will ye? No use gettin’ yer finery covered with any more muck.” He walked out.
The room grew still. Gradually my sobs shifted to gasps. I opened swollen eyes and saw the outline of a person kneeling by the bed. Firelight flickered behind her as she watched me. I was exhausted. After a moment, she stood and my eyes drifted away from her to focus on my sprawled arm. My mind was slightly clearer from the pain and I licked cracked lips. I could see each bead of sweat clinging to the hairs. I blinked. Was it possible to feel every single part of my body all at once? She appeared before me again, this time with a cup. “Drink it, girl.” I obeyed, grateful for the liquid, even while gagging at the taste. Now sleep, little Kat.
The warmth spread throughout, dulling my senses, and I wasn’t sure if the woman or my mind had spoken. Sighing, I drifted off into the darkness.
I woke screaming. Thousands of burning feet clawed their way up my back. Liquid splashed my face and I sputtered, gasping for air. “Hand me that cup.” The horrible drink was shoved against my lips and ran down my neck as she forced it on me.
“What did you do to me?” My voice was barely a croak. Tears slid down my cheeks.
Liam’s face came into focus just before my eyes. “Saved your life.” I squinted, already losing focus. Just barely, I heard him mutter, “If it weren’t for those damned royes...”
I winced at the light. “Ungh...” Weakly, I shaded my eyes, startled by how little strength I had.”
“Awake, are we now?”
I raised my hand slightly so I could peer into the darkness. A stout woman stepped into the sunshine, closing the shutters. “Who are you?” I rasped, my throat dry.
She chuckled, pouring water into a cup. I eyed her suspiciously as she handed it to me. “Well go on, then. I’m not going to poison ye now.” Warily, I took a sip. The water slid down my throat, soothingly cool. Quickly, I drained it. She refilled it again and I drank it slower, savoring the slight taste of earth. “Better?”
I nodded. She was plain, mousy brown hair pulled severely back from her face and hidden under a plain coif. She was a big woman, face rosy with sweat and cheeks plump. I handed her my cup and she set it gently on the table, watching me. Green eyes... I sat up, wincing at the tightness in my back. “You’re the witch!”
She chuckled again, bemused. “So you remember, then. Aye, I’m your ‘witch,’ girl.”
Hastily, I pulled the neck of my shift out and stared down at my body. Fresh bandages wrapped tightly around my torso from collarbone to hip. I flipped the sheet down and yanked up the bottom of the shift. Another bandage wrapped awkwardly around my hip. I sat back, in shock. “So it wasn’t a dream. And I didn’t die.”
She pulled the chair closer and tugged the sheet gently up, patting my hand. “Ye’re very much alive, m’dear.” Leaning back, she rested her elbow on the table. One chubby finger ran circles around the rim of the cup. Her eyes sparkled. “Not for lack of trying, mind ye. Ye scared me half a dozen times.”
I smoothed the sheet over my legs, watching the veins move under my hands. “So this is all real.” She stayed silent, letting me process. I pushed a curl behind my ear. A log collapsed in the fire, the only sound other than my rapid breathing. Finally, I cleared my throat, choosing a safer question than the one I wanted to ask. “How...how long was I asleep?”
She sighed. “A week, love. From the looks of ye though, ye ate more unconscious than ye did before. Which reminds me -” Grunting, she heaved herself to her feet and went to the fire. I watched numbly as she slid the lid off a pot, the smell of stew reaching my nose. My stomach gurgled mutinously and I bit my lip. She shot me a knowing glance, ladled a fair portion into a bowl, and set it before me. For a big woman, she moved remarkably gracefully.
We sat in companionable silence as I ate. She had picked up a stocking and was darning it. I watched her needles click together, savoring the mild broth. It was almost as good as Liza’s stews. I pushed the thought away, the idea still raw. I swallowed the last of the meal and set it down on the table. “Thank you.” She mmed, letting the silence stretch. I picked at a loose thread on the sheet, not sure what to say. Finally I could bear it no longer. I swore I saw a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth. “Liam...um...am I still..am I...”
“His slave?” Her green eyes danced and I nodded nervously. “Aye, girl. Ye be his ‘til he says otherwise. And after all he’s spent to keep ye alive, I doubt he’ll do that anytime soon.”
I blanched. How much had
he spent? And how was I at all worth keeping alive? I remembered his words from the first night and rested against the wall. Payment for the woman’s services had been by far cheaper than what he’d paid for me. Better to treat the dog than shoot him for a broken leg. In light of the situation, I couldn’t blame him for his disgust. I nibbled my lip, thinking.
The chair scraped against the ground, jarring me out of my thoughts. “Queen’s spirit, I lost track of time. He’ll be here soon!” The woman, Martha I faintly remembered, flapped a hand at me. “Cover yer face, dear. I need to open the windows. Can’t have a Royal visiting a house that smells of stew and sweat, now can we?”
I squinted at the sudden light, slightly amused that she didn’t wait. She fluttered around the room, clearing this and that from the shelves. Shading my eyes again, I watched her frantic shuffling. “He’s coming to visit?”
“Oh aye.” She grinned over her shoulder. “He comes every day at three precisely. I reckon--” The caller cried from the street the time and her grin widened. “Right on schedule.”
The door opened and my master stepped inside.
He paused in the doorway and I caught my breath. Sunlight slanted across his face, leaving half of it in shadow. Slowly he shut the door and stepped fully into the room. “You’re awake.”
I nodded dumbly, mesmerized by the man in front of me. I hadn’t gotten a good look at him that first night. Other than his profile and a few chance glances, I had had no idea what he looked like. I bit my lip, nervous. He was exactly what I imagined a Royal to be. Dark brown hair fell to his shoulders in soft waves, the faintest flashes of red catching in the sunlight. His beard was more auburn, trimmed close to an angular jaw and fading into the lightest of tan skin. I pulled the sheet higher and his eyes flicked down at the motion. I flushed. “M-my lord.”
He glanced back at me and I felt myself freeze. His eyes were dark, almost black beneath thick brows. But, they weren’t unkind. I swallowed and dropped my eyes, unsure of how a servant was supposed to greet her lord. My hands twisted the loose thread over and over again as the silence stretched.
Finally Martha threw up her hands and sighed in exasperation. “For the love of the Queen, Liam, ye’re scaring the girl. Sit, sit.” I heard the chair pull back from the bed but didn’t raise my eyes. It creaked as he settled in it. I’ve been bought by a giant. His legs stretched in front of him and I remembered the length of his cloak. Short I might be, but his head had brushed the doorway. My lord Liam was at least six feet tall, a good foot taller than I and several inches above most other men. I stared intently at his boots. “For the love...” Martha chuckled and I grew redder. “Well, I’ll leave ye two be then. I know when’s I’m welcome and when’s I needs to get out.”
“No, please-” Liam’s look silenced me, and I returned to anxiously staring at my hands. “Thank you, ma’am.” She shut the door softly behind her and the two of us were left sitting in silence. After several moments, I dared look up. His face was stormy, eyes boring into me. “T-thank you.”
He blinked as if just realizing I were alive. He leaned back and crossed his arms. “For what? Saving your life?” He arched one perfect eyebrow.
“Well...yes,” I stammered. I tried to hold his gaze and failed miserably. Instead, I stared out the window. A woman hung her laundry out her own window, stockings and shifts blowing in the afternoon breeze. “But...more than that... thank you for buying me.” I glanced at him and both brows rose. “A-and for saving my life. You didn’t have to spend so much, and I apologize for your property nearly dying.”
“You are not my property.” I cringed at the sharpness in his tone. He leaned forward. I could just see his steepled fingers. “You are not my property,” he repeated firmly. “Property is a chair or a book or a horse. You are not property. Do you understand?”
I nodded quickly, not sure what he was trying to say. “Yes, m’lord.”
“What’s more, I know what Aaron is like. He isn’t one to give the respect due even to property, especially not when it comes to his slaves.” I nodded again, feeling wooden. “You were lucky I was there looking for a scullery maid.”
Startled, I met his eyes. “You mean you aren’t the master of a pleasure house?”
He looked as shocked as I felt. “A pleasure house? A brothel? By the King, no.” He snorted, running his hand through his hair. A lock fell rakishly in front of his face and he swept it away. “If Aaron had bought you, it would have been something similar. But no, I am a humble Royal serving the King.”
I must have looked amusing, mouth hanging open and eyes wide, because he smiled slightly. “So then, you know the Prince?” My voice squeaked. I could see that face so clearly in my mind’s eye, almost feel the weight of the cheese in my palm.
His smile broadened, proud. “Aye. you might say I’m a lesser son. Which makes him my-”
“Brother.” I leaned heavily against the wall, overwhelmed. “I’ve been bought by a bloody prince.” I closed my eyes and swallowed. By the Three, what have I gotten myself into? I swallowed, mouth dry. A prince. Of Zyonn, no less. Not merely a Royal, but a true Royal. A royal Royal. “So that’s how you had five royes to spend on a slave.” I peeked at him.
He ran his hand through his hair again and leaned back, frowning. “Aye. And therein lies my problem.”
I squeezed my eyes shut again. “I’m sorry I cost you so much, my lord. I’ve been thinking, but I don’t know how I’m worth it.”
“Foiling Aaron was worth the five royes, but otherwise I agree.” I winced, bracing for a return to those horrid pens. “At that price, I could have bought five decent stewards, let alone a scullery maid. No... Aaron will expect you to be placed high in my servants or he will cry foul.” His finger tapped on the table. I held my breath, not daring to hope. “If you were an ordinary woman, that would be simple enough. But a rebel I cannot-”
My eyes snapped open and I stared at him incredulously. “A rebel?”
He nodded. "Your lashing suggests so." He pointed to my hand, clenched tight in the sheet. "You're obviously a builder, probably from the Western region by the color of your skin. Most of the rebels come from those parts. And it isn't unusual for a woman to be part of a revolt." His brows furrowed and he paused. "Although, your whipping is remarkably light for a rebel."
Surprised as I was by the accuracy of his guess, his assumption angered me. His slave or not, I was no rebel. "If refusing to be raped is rebellion, then yes my lord, I am a rebel," I ground out, trying to keep my temper at bay. He didn't seem convinced. "I'm not so foolish as to join their suicide plot. I've lost too many people I love to stupid revolts and I've seen the ‘change’ they bring." I stared at him hotly. "They're only playing into the hands of the overseers. The rebels are useless."
He watched me for a moment, my back painfully upright and proud. "Well..." His face relaxed and the tension eased out of his face. I glared at him, still furious that he had even considered me a rebel. He unclasped his cloak and swung it over the back of the chair. "In that case, my instinct is still flawless. Thank you. I was beginning to doubt myself."
Confusion began to replace my sudden anger. “...Instinct?”
He stretched, boots pressing against the ends of the bed, and poured himself a glass of water. “Thirsty?” Without waiting for a response, he poured another glass and handed it to me. Warily, I took the proffered cup. Did he think I was lying? Was he crazy? He tapped the table with a long finger, watching me. I suppressed a shiver. Their black depths were virtually impossible to read. “Joshua told me I’d find what I needed.”
He waved a hand dismissively, taking a drink. “You’ll meet him eventually. As it is, my current manservant is due to be given his freedom soon. He’s nearing his fifties, and a place in stewardship would suit him much better. His joints make moving difficult.”
I sipped my glass, watching his face shift from casual comment to compassion. Whoever this servant was, he seemed to have some importance with my master. It was reassuring. “What does your manservant becoming a steward have anything to do with me” I set the cup in my lap, meeting his gaze. “You’d need to replace him with a man, not with me.”
A smile twitched at the corners of his mouth. “Says who?”
I frowned, fighting the urge to smile back. This man owned me. We weren’t having a friendly chat over tea; we were discussing my new position as his slave. My frown deepened. “I don’t know who. It just seems reasonable. I mean, you being a man makes it somewhat improper for a woman to attend you. Unless Cardeas is different.”
He smiled and I decided that he should never smile again. The blush raced up my neck. His smile widened but I held is eyes. “No, Cardeas is not different. Matthew’s grandson will undertake my more personal needs.” I dropped my gaze and stared at my hands. He sat forward, chair creaking. “You will assist me with everything else.”
My hands almost blended into the deep earthy color of the cup. “Like what, my lord?”
A boot tapped against the floor. “Choosing clothes, handling my schedule, cleaning my private quarters, assisting me out on the road, serving guests.” He ticked them off on his fingers.
I laughed. “You must not have been to Builder’s Brooke, m’lord. We aren’t well known for our servant attitude, let alone our ability to do half those things.”
His eyes narrowed and he pursed his lips. “So I was right.” He tapped his finger against his lip, thinking. “And yet you have remarkably good English. Even better than Martha, who was born in Cardeas.” The sheet became immensely interesting. “Care to explain that, my curious little servant?”
I didn’t care to explain. “My father had been a servant before being sent to Builder’s Broke. He taught us.” He waited me out, ignoring my terse tone. I wrinkled my nose and he grinned. “He taught us a few other useless things, too.”
“Useless to builders or useless to me?”
I sighed. “Useless to builders. I can read fairly well, and he taught us our basic sums.”
“Joshua never is wrong.” I made a mental note to figure out who this Joshua was. Perhaps another servant? “And to think Aaron almost had you.” He stood abruptly, chair squealing as he pushed back. The scent of pine and soap wafted over me as he slipped his cloak on and tingles ran down my spine. I had the faint feeling of strong arms around me. If I blushed one more time while he was here, he’d think I were permanently red. “Well, my little maidservant, I will leave you in the good care of Miss Martha. She will see to it that you heal properly and that you are fully trained by the time I come to fetch you.” He opened the door, then turned around again. “I have yet to know your name. It’s hardly polite to call you ‘maidservant,’ isn’t it.”
I blinked, surprised. Wasn’t that how I was to be called? “Kathryn, but, if it... if it pleases my lord, I prefer Kat.”
He gave a short bow. “Kat, it is a pleasure to have you in my service. I am Liam Rexus, thirteenth son of the King and rightful heir of Zyonn.”
“Takes ye by surprise, doesn’t he?” Martha pushed the door open, carrying a tray loaded with something that smelled delicious. “The quiet ones always do, ye know.”
I frowned and nodded, still a little shaken from my lord’s visit. She set the tray down and began setting the little table for tea. Porcelain chinked, the blue filigree catching the firelight. “Is he crazy?”
Martha snorted and I relaxed a little. “Crazy? Liam? By the Queen, no.” Her body jiggled as she laughed. The kettle sloshed and she dabbed at the spill, still chuckling. “No, girl. He’s still young. They don’t start going crazy until they’re at least two hundred years old.”
“T-two hundred?” I knew the Royals were immortal, but it had all seemed like a fairy tale. Everyone aged and died. Even the overseers, who claimed Royal blood. “So...it isn’t just a story?” I curled my legs up underneath me and settled against the wall. Cardeas suddenly seemed so much more magical.
“Oh aye, girl.” Martha set the final piece down, a tray of cookies, and settled in the chair. Her green eyes twinkled in amusement. “Not sure how old the original Three are, but the second son is nearing his 494th birthday.”
“494th,” I breathed. Dazed, I handed her my empty water cup. “But...that’s older than Zyonn, isn’t it?” She replaced it with one of tea. “And how old is m’lord, then?”
Martha leaned forward conspiratorially. “They say the second son is actually the last king of that first kingdom. When the Three arrived, he bowed before Their magnificence and was given the gift of true Royalty, adopted by Them and beginning the kingdom of Zyonn.” I’d never heard that story. Father had taught us our history, but he’d known nothing of the beginnings of the kingdom. Mistress Martha was an interesting person, to be sure. She tapped her nose, eyeing me shrewdly. “Och, I suppose I can tell ye. After all, he is yer lord n’ master, isn’t he?” I took a sip of tea, hanging on to her every thread. Peppermint and honey swirled on my tongue but I barely noticed, so ensorceled by my healer lady. “Liam just passed his 139th birthday.” I choked on my tea and she beat me solidly on the back while I struggled to breathe again. Her belly shook with her laughter. “Oh... Oh, by the Queen, that was good.” She wiped tears off her cheeks and I glared up at her.
“139?” I took another sip to cover my surprise. “But he hardly looks older than thirty himself.”
The woman nodded, still laughing. “And ye look nought older than sixteen, girl, but I’ll wager you’re closer to thirty myself.” I blanched. Martha saw the change and grew serious. “Come now, girl. I’ve dressed yer lashes for the past sevenday. Do ye really think I wouldn’t have seen yer secret?”
My fingers drifted to the bandages around my chest. “Oh...the other scars...”
Martha pursed her lips and frowned. I stared into my cup, incredibly uncomfortable. No one save Liza knew my real age. But, no one save Liza had ever had to patch me back together. “I don’t plan on telling him, if’n that’s what yer worried about. It’s none of my business what ye did to survive back in yer old place.” I didn’t lift my eyes, ashamed. A maid over seventeen was expected to marry, regardless of desire. My desires being what they were, I had played up every aspect of my youth. I rubbed my thumb against the layers of glaze.. In her eyes, I was a spinster, too old to marry now if she had so closely guessed my real age. I kept my fingers from reaching for the hidden wrapping scars. Martha sighed and patted my hand. “Like I was saying, yer safe here. If’n ye weren’t, Liam wouldn’t’ve brought ye here. Strange as he might be, he isn’t a fool. Ye can stay a maid if’n ye wish it.”
I didn’t meet her eyes as I slipped a cookie off the tray. The tea swirled around it as I dipped and thought. She sat quietly, sipping her drink. The silence stretched. Sighing, I sat back. “I’m not a maid, and I suppose it doesn’t much matter now. Slaves don’t have the freedom of marrying, do they?” Martha remained emotionless, merely dipping her cookie and eating it. I bit into my own soggy cookie, savoring the nutmeg and cinnamon for a moment. “I’m twenty-six as of last month.”
“Ha!” I jumped at her shout. “I knew it! Ye have the scars of someone who’s been alive for more’n a few years of beating, not to mention the wrapping scars.” She tapped her nose again, chewing thoughtfully. “Of course, yer new lord already knows.” She spent another few minutes beating the tea out of my lungs. “‘Twas a joint effort, cleaning all that muck off of ye. We must have scrubbed for nearly an hour, and went through a good few tubs full of water. Don’t know as I like the way ye slaves are kept, if’n that’s how all of ye are kept.”
“Only those headed for slaughter.” I pushed Patty’s face from my mind as well as the knowledge that Liam had seen...everything. At least there would be no pretenses or surprises with his new purchase. I finished my tea and set it gently in its saucer, turning the handle to face me. My fingers lingered on it a moment before I dropped them in my lap. “I don’t belong here, Martha. Look at me. I can’t even build decent bricks. How does he expect me to help him?” I twisted my fingers together, hating their stained color. “Everyone will know what I am. How will that do anything for either of us?”
Her chubby hand settled over mine and I looked up, wiping a renegade tear from my cheek. “Liam’s thought of that, girl. He’s not such a cruel master as to humiliate you, nor such a fool as to allow for ridicule to his household. Gloves are being made for ye.” I stared back at my hands. He’d made me gloves. I, the trouble slave he’d paid too much for, was being made gloves. She squeezed my hands and stood, beginning to clear the tea. “And I know ye can read. And do yer basic sums, correct?” I nodded, tracing the lines on my hands. Perhaps Martha had suggested it. Or perhaps Liam really was a good master. Either way, I was grateful. “Now then, girl, that brings us to another matter. I’m not such a fool as to believe ye were sold into this life. Who is Liza and where do she go?”
“How do you know that name?” I gasped and covered my mouth. No one could know about Liza. If anyone knew what I’d done to her, they’d hate me. And it was too much to think about just now. Martha propped a hand on her hip and stared me down. “I spoke while I was sick, didn’t I.” It wasn’t a guess.
The woman shrugged and returned to her clearing. She tugged her shawl tighter around her shoulders and tapped her chest. “Aye, girl. ye kep saying, ‘I’m so sorry.’ Makes one wonder what ye’re so sorry for.” I must have looked horrified. She shook her head, disappointed. “Do ye take me for a fool, girl? Liam was already on the verge of selling ye back or giving ye away. No, I kept ye well-dosed for his visits.” His surprise earlier was explained then. “But, one can’t stay on those kinds of herbs for long.” She clucked her tongue disapprovingly. “And ye are a talker. Oft had to gag ye to keep ye from alerting the neighbors to yer special presence.”
“Alerting? Do they not know you’re a healer?” The thought of witch crossed my mind but I emphatically squashed it. If Martha was a witch, she’d done a fine job in magicking me back to health. Who was I to complain?
“Oh, they know. Been in here oft enough that every single one of them owes me his life. But, faced with Lord Aaron and his men, they’ll choose their own hide any day over mine.”
I shivered, remembering that awful feeling as he’d stared at me. It was like having Death crawl across my skin. I pulled the sheet higher. “Will he find me?”
She shook her head and stepped into the hall. “By the Queen’s own protection, no. I’ve kept ye fairly quiet and they’ve all been a little off in the head lately anyways.” She winked. “Never cross your healer, girl. Now just stay put while I get these put away. Although I don’t right know where she’d get to, Matha Smith. I’ll be darned, the things ye say,” she muttered, bustling out of my line of sight.
I smiled, somewhat relieved and partly shocked. No wonder my lord had brought me here. For all her pleasant exterior, Martha was quite fearsome in her own way. I took the brief moment of silence to take stock of my surroundings. The sun slanted through two good-sized windows and I could just make out what must have been a little alley. A chilly breeze blew through them, but the fresh air felt good on my face. I pulled the sheets higher and settled back.
Her neighbor’s laundry fluttered brightly outside, flipping in the wind and brightening the drab brown bricks. From the East, to be sure. Inferior work. I grinned, knowing it was a silly thought. In the room itself sat my bed, a small circular table, and two chairs. One sat near the fire and the other sat beside me. Both were the only interesting things in the room, carved in intricate detail to mimic a rose garden. I followed the stems and thorns as they curled around the chairs. Now that I was in Cardeas, perhaps I’d get to see the real thing.
The table held a pile of fresh bandages on one side, a shock of white against the dark grain, and my hand drifted to my bandages. One week. I shifted experimentally and felt no pain, only a tightness and slight tenderness. Relieved, I let my hand drop. I knew I couldn’t avoid it any longer, though. The thought was one I’d tried to avoid all afternoon, from the moment I woke up. Perhaps it was all just a bad dream and I was just a servant. Yet another silly thought...
I took a deep breath, grateful for my solitude. Carefully, I unwrapped the bandage from my hip. The cloth pulled off much easier than I had expected, the brand slathered in some kind of ointment. It was uglier, though, a dark crusty mass against the crispness of the sheets. I traced the burn gently, the triangle of the Three containing the combined R-Z of a Royal of Zyonn. I was owned. The scabs gave slightly under my pressure and I winced at the little pinch of pain. It wasn’t a dream. I was no longer free. As a builder, I’d virtually been a slave, but I’d still been paid for my work. I still worked for myself and spoke for myself. I traced the brand again, completely lost.
I could see his face in my mind. Overall, he seemed fairly nice. Still, that first night he might have only saved me because I’d cost so much. And I wasn’t sure I believed Martha. If he wasn’t crazy, my lord Liam was arrogant. To think I would be his maid servant! I bit my lip, remembering the strength in his arms as he carried me. I’d seen too many men who used that strength to their advantage. I shoved the thought of Liza away, unable to bear the guilt. Thank the King Liam had the boy to do all the dirty work. I wrapped the brand up again and sat back to think. Challenging an idea so ingrained as a manservant for a prince and a lady in waiting for a princess was not something anyone could do. Was he a favorite in the family, that he could bend the rules? The third or fourth son, I could understand, but he was the thirteenth. I frowned, thoroughly confused. if life wasn’t hard enough already with an arrogant younger son or a brand on my skin, I’d have to deal with the scorn of all the other slaves. Not that I was afraid of it, but it would be more than difficult. Perhaps Liam would reconsider, considering the consequences. I tapped my lip, trying to think of a way to broach the subject. I groaned and rubbed my eyes. I snorted. “Five royes or not, this is a stupid decision. At least I get gloves.”
“Snorting is hardly lady-like.” My hostess had returned.
I grinned at her mothering tone. Martha glared at me in mock reproval, dumping her load of firewood on the fire. “Didn’t you hear, Mistress Martha? I’m a man in all but the necessary parts now.”
“Oh aye, girl, ye are that ‘n more,” she laughed. The fire hissed with her poking. She stood, still chuckling, and closed the shutters. “That ‘n more...” She settled heavily in the chair and laid out her tools for bandaging. As I sat up she winked at me. “Didn’t ye know, women already are men. We’ve just got the better parts.” She pursed her lips and smoothed her skirts, matter-of-fact. I grinned. “We don’t get stupid when ours wake up.”
“Here.” Martha dumped a load of clothes on my bed. I wrinkled me nose but didn’t look over. The quill scratched against the parchment, letters curling and curling from its tip. The basket loppped down in the across from me and I flinched. “Make yeself useful and fix some of these, will ye”
“I am being useful.” I frowned teasingly up at her and returned to my writing.
A wide pair of hips came into my line of vision, hands propped against their sides. “If’n ye needed anymore help with yer writing, I’d have to send ye to the Temple.” I sighed and sat back, enjoying her back-handed compliment. She raised an eyebrow and pointed ominously at the pile of clothes. “Those are the kind of useful I mean.”
I stared in horror at the mountain of stockings, shifts, and shirts spilling over the edge of the cot and tightened my grip on the quill. The smell of old RObert’s feet was slowly filling the room. Gagging, I buried my nose in my sleeve. “You couldn’t wash them first at least?”
I earned myself a waggling finger. “Washing without darning leads to bigger holes. Now I know yer mother taught ye that much.”
I groaned, letting the comment slide by. Mama hadn’t, but Liza had. Liza... I could see her sitting by our fire, laughing at my failed attempts to fix a shift. The pain was too much. I’m so sorry... I bit my lip and looked at the pile.
Martha mistook my sudden quietness for embarrassment. I almost giggled at her look of self-reproval. “Now girl, I do need ye with the quill. Ye’ve gotten me so much more business, but that is exactly why I need ye to help with the more base chores.” She patted my hand and peered at me.
I hid my smile, Liza purposely forgotten. “Which I won’t need to know, as a maidservant.”
Martha’s face dimpled, but she held her stoic expression. Barely. “Ay.”
“And that I’m horrible at.” I raised an eyebrow.
“Aye.” She pursed her lips, trying not to smile.
“And that you’re trying to kill me with.”
She laughed as I picked up the nearest stocking, covering my nose with my free sleeve. I could smell it through the gingham of my dress. I giggled, flinging the stocking at her. “You can’t stand the smell either!”
“Nay, girl,” she gasped. The stocking made its way quickly back onto the pile. “Makes me want to vomit. But for his feet, old Robert is perfect. I keep asking him to let me chop them off.” She swept the clothes off the bed and back into the basket. “He keeps insisting he needs them.” I watched her through watering eyes as she sat back down across from me. Martha rolled her eyes and pulled the sheet off my bed, covering the basket. “Is that better, or will you forever keep your face half-covered?”
I took a tentative sniff and wrinkled my nose. “Better...but still smelly. Why won’t he let you cut off his feet?”
She smiled, then sat back in her chair. It creaked slightly beneath her weight. My own teasing faded as her face took on a decidedly sly look. “Ye know yer choice. Darn his stockings or tell me of this Liza.” Her eyes narrowed, watching for any signs I’d give in this time.
I quickly grabbed for the basket. “If my lord Liam knew...”
She tsked me. “If’n yer lord Liam knew, he’d have a few less holey stockings.” She grinned. “How about a deal. I’ve got a load of herbs that needs grinding. I’ll darn if ye grind.”
“And talk.” I pulled a face, but the clothes were a little too much for me and she went to fetch her tools.
I stared at the paper in front of me. The contract still gleamed wetly in the firelight, another agreement between some merchant and Mistress Martha for her services. I set the quill in the inkpot, suddenly disturbed. A month ago, I’d been sitting in front of a fire just like this one with Liza. Over the weeks, Martha had unconsciously taken Liza’s place as my careful avoidance of my sister’s memory grew. My own guilt had done far worse than Liza’s selling herself into slavery: I’d replaced her entirely.
“What’s wrong, girl? Ye look like ye’ve seen a ghost.” The pistol and mortar clunked heavily by my hand and I jumped.
I stared at them blankly. How could I have replaced her? After everything she did, I couldn’t believe how heartless I was. “I...You...” I swallowed, almost unable to say it.
“I forgot about her.”
Her hands stilled in her lap. “Forgot who, girl?”
I looked up at her sharp breath. Martha clucked her tongue. “Ye didn’t forget her. Ye just needed some time to think before ye could face her again. Don’t go putting more shame on that pretty little head than there need be.” It made sense, but the awful feeling remained. I flinched when she touched my hand. “Kat?”
My name sent chills down my back. Martha called me “girl,” almost as a pet name. Liza had called me “Kat.” It was too much. I could see her face in Martha’s, worried eyes trying to shoulder my burden yet again. “I can’t talk about it. I can’t... I just...”
“Why?” She brushed a curl out of my face, waiting.
I bit my lip. “Because-” Because I didn’t want to face what I’d done. I swallowed, shocked at the though. “Because it wouldn’t make sense,” I finished lamely.
She watched me, neither demanding nor prying. Her hands returned to their steady darning and I relaxed as her gaze left my face. “So, make it make sense.”
We’d been happy once. Moderately happy, anyways. We were, after all, a builder family. Our good days were when all we did was march in place, pat bricks, and stay out of the overseers’ way. The world around us was in constant chaos but we were in a little bubble all of our own. I was safe, as long as Mama and Father were stomping beside me. It was the mindset of a child, still foolish and naive, but I clung to it with every fiber of my being.
My first revolt happened when I was four. Before then, I had a mother, a father, two brothers, and three sisters. I was second youngest, with only Thomas younger than me. I only remember bits and pieces of that happy time before. If I think back, I can just remember helping with my brother’s birth as only a four-year old can: I whispered what was happening to the boys outside. Father and the older boys were all crowded around, sweating and swearing with every scream. I felt so useful, until Thomas was born. I remember thinking he was ugly and noisy, but everyone else loved him. Once he was big enough for me to play with, I tolerated him a little better.
And, I remember my father’s books. Oh, the books... He’d been born high in the servant class, educated and employed in Cardeas, the City of Friendship. His tales of the capital would keep us enthralled for hours with images of spires piercing the sky and people living in huts stacked on top of each other. As a young man, he was sent to Builder’s Brooke. He’d brought all of his books with him. There were primers, fairy tales, histories, and maps. Everything he’d needed to properly teach his children, he’d managed to bring. We guarded our treasures jealously, telling no one and huddling around a tiny lamp at night so no one would know. Before that first revolt, I’d learned my letters, basic words, and my name: Kathryn. Father called me “little Kat.”
I don’t remember anything from the first revolt other than the screams and the dark. Mama, Thomas, Liza, and I were shoved into a hole under the bed. Thomas was still little but no one could have heard his cries over the noise outside. My oldest brother died. Father said he was trying to keep people away from our hut. He wouldn’t tell me how he died until much, much later. Stephen was caught with a whip around the neck. He was dead before Father realized it had happened... Father and the two older girls made it back. As for Stephen, my child’s mind forgot his face quickly, much as I tried not to. Father often told me I looked like him, all leg, black curls, green eyes, and not a lick of sense. He said it with pride. Stephen was the first to die.
A year later, my oldest sister vanished during our lunch break and came home at dark, dress dirty and face white. A few weeks later, we realized she was with child. Even Liza and I knew enough to know that this wasn’t the same as Thomas. We all kept quiet about it, but Natalie changed. She wandered about the house, stumbled through her brick building, and barely eat. Without telling Mama, she bought the moon-bringing herb in hopes of killing the child she carried. It was too strong a dose for her child body. We awoke to Mama’s screams and my father’s quiet whispers. I listened to her die through the door, bleeding her life away in Father’s arms. Natalie was only seven years older than I, with long golden hair like Liza and green eyes like mine.
This was when the whispers began. My father was an outsider and, ignoring the fact that all of their families had suffered, the villagers began to say we were cursed. It was my father’s tainted servants’ blood, they said. At night around our fire, my father explained over and over again that this was merely their ignorance and made it clear that Tali had not been curse. But, as the years passed, I began to doubt him. Over the next three, we survived four more revolts. My sister Claire vanished and Mama wasted away, sitting by the door in hopes that she would stumble in, just as Natalie once had. By the time I was nine, it was only Father, Liza, Thomas, and I. If this wasn’t cursed, I didn’t want to know what it was.
My only memories of happiness were around that litle fire. here, we were transported away from our horrible reality. Our crumbling walls were transformed into the uniform brick of a lord’s house. Our rags became the finery of maids and stable boys. Each night, my father taught us the other side of our heritage. Each night, I fell asleep curled between my siblings, a deep blue ribbon twisted around my fingers. Each night, I dreamed of the face that had given it to me and brought me the slightest bit of hope. And so we made it by, living for the nights of manners and learning and imagination, surviving during the days of heat and mud and hate.
Time passed, although I hardly noticed. Liza’s womanhood arrived and I watched as she began to bind her ever-growing chest. I watched silently as she bit back cries when Father pulled it tighter, but we remembered our sisters’ fates. Even little Thomas remembered. Even he was growing up, already at six nearly to my shoulder. Eventually I joined Liza in that ritual binding, biting back my own tears as the bandages bit into my skin. But it kept most of the men from looking our way. We kept our eyes down and our mouths shut. We became the invisible cursed family.
When I was eighteen, the Royals of Zyonn went to war. I don’t know who they fought, but Thomas and Father were conscripted. Father tried to fight for Thomas to stay. After all, he was only fourteen. But, the war demanded soldiers and Thomas was as tall as Father. They left just as the snows melted. Every night, we would sit at the outskirts of the womenfolk, waiting to see our family come home. Liza and I waited, endured their stares and their whispers. By harvest, men began trickling back into town, shells of what they had been. We waited through the cold of winter, though very few came back then. Like the other women, we prayed we’d get even that hollow shell of a man back. All through spring, we waited, taking turns praying for even the smallest bit of information. It was around then that my faith in the King and Queen began to falter. The Prince, at least, I’d seen. Liza remained faithful, though, and that gave me some hope. At least, it did until mid-summer.
Near mid-summer’s eve we got our much prayed for news: they were dead. A young man who had been back for almost a week saw us waiting and suddenly remembered. Even now, the thought burns that Father and Thomas could have been forgotten. Father had fought bravely, the man said, but wasn’t strong enough in his old age to stand against the onslaught. Thomas as still green and, terrified as he was, had stood his place where older men had run. He lasted only slightly longer.
Like that, we were alone. We were two girls left with memories of people long forgotten by the rest of the world. There was no doubt in my mind that we were cursed. I developed a deep hatred for everyone who held power, silently and passively acting out. After all, everything that had happened to us was because of them in some way. Stephen had died because of their brutality. Natalie had died because of their lust. Claire had vanished because of the Prince knows what, but it was because of them. Mama had given up because they took everything from her. Father and Thomas had died for a cause they knew nothing about. I couldn’t do anything directly, and my daily wrapping reminded me that I could barely do the things I was. But I refused to let their deaths go forgotten. One overseer would find his dogs loose. Another would break out with poison oak mysteriously. Another would crack a tooth on a misplaced stone in his stew. They were all little things, but it evened the balance slightly. To them, my family had been little things, inconveniences that had needed removing. Often, my thoughts bubbled out during their rounds and I earned myself more than enough lashes. Only my hatred kept me strong. Unbenownst to me, Liza was paying the full price in my stead. Every lashing called for just a little more, a little more physical pleasure than I was willing to give or that they were willing to try for. I was a fool... I thought I’d beaten them. I’d just broken the only person I had left.
I saw the bruises as she wrapped herself but Liza wasn’t one to make a fuss. Now that I know what they were from, I wish I could thank her. I owe her more than just my life. But, I can’t. I can’t thank her. I can’t beg her forgiveness. I can’t even offer her my strength to lean on or try to take her place. My sister... My sister gave up everything for me so I wouldn’t be forgotten like the rest of my family. She sold herself to keep me free and alive. I suppose she found it a simple price to pay for my safety, but I’m still alone. I still have lost my everything. She was my last tie to the world, and now I will never get her back.
Release Date: 10-12-2011
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