It was summer, a kind of liquid pool of heat and sun that immersed the world. The shimmer of heat mirages coasted along the dirt and treeline, and I had to press my face against the glass, with its bubbles and distorting whorls, to cool my cheeks and lips. Bestowing a kiss on the glass to the summer vista below me, I sighed. I stood at the window, wishing that the sun could flood the room, steal me away from that place and send me off into a world unknown, where I was brave and beautiful, and would love and be loved, forever.
“If I were someone else, somewhere else- anyone and anywhere- I would be…”
I curled a lock of fine hair around my fingers and gazed out at the endless possibilities that lay beneath that seer blue sky. A yellow and blue and green array. Arrowood Estate was home, though I dreamt of life beyond it.
My father once said that in Quest a first son inherited the title and a second son inherited the work. Dusting the upper Lord’s Bedchamber, it was a cursed fate to be the only daughter of a second son- work was my destiny, it seemed. Flicking the duster listlessly at the window sill, I tried to find motivation for the chore.
“Fidele, stop daydreaming,” Mother tutted. I saw her in the reflection of the glass panes, her bent form tense. She was shaking out some sheets, which she then carefully tucked about the mattress of the bed that dominated the room. Even being the finest in the whole of Arrowood Manor, I hated this room. “Lord Tobias and Lady Catherine will be here tomorrow, Fidele. I don’t still want to be cleaning when they get here.”
Putting the duster down, I turned to her with a vexed look- “Mother, this is ridiculous. Why can’t they just sleep in the room by your’s and Father’s? Aunt Catherine always uses that one!”
Finishing with the sheets, my mother slammed the lid of the linen box closed. She came over to me, looking me over, and I could see the annoyance in her eyes. She brushed a long string of green hair away behind my ear, her own matching hair tied back in a loose, kind bun. I thought, as I had a million times before, that Mother truly looked like the wood elves and fae that people said our Old Blood ancestors were descended from. “You can finish up by yourself, daughter,” she smirked, leaving me there.
When she left, I sighed, collapsing on the newly made bed.
When Grandfather was alive I wore fine, tailor made dresses and had other servants make beds for me. Looking over at the tall stand mirror in the corner, I grimaced to see the plain dark blue servant’s livery and dusty locks that I wore now. He died when I was about five or so; after the funeral we went to the capital, to the palace, where the King raised my uncle to Baron. I think maybe my father was expecting uncle to appeal to the King to grant father his own estate and title, them being twins born nearly equal. Instead a nomination for Stewardship of the manor and estate was put forward and my uncle, the Baron, would assume a place in court. My father was never so bitter that he was born ten minutes behind Uncle Tobias than on that day.
Since then the Baron and Aunt Catherine had lived in the capital, my Aunt as a Lady-in-Waiting upon the Queen herself. Father and Mother send Uncle Tobias reports often, their upkeep of the Manor carefully scribed for my Uncle’s approval, our lives dependent on his favour. My Aunt visited often, my Uncle requesting her time from the Queen to see to their estates and receive the reports my Father wrote painstakingly every month for his perusal. This time, however, the Baron himself was coming and behind him would come all my cousins and all their staff- people I despised, and hadn’t seen for years.
“At least we had warning,” I told my reflection, smiling. Aunt Catherine had made a surprise visit last month. I had been sitting in the fields, lazily taking in the sun and sketching, when I saw her long plume of road dust. The sight of my Aunt, riding wildly on her huge dun stallion, long lemon yellow hair streaming, tangled with the sun and air behind, the froth of her dress pushed high and her legs tanned, never failed to fill my heart gladly. This woman was close to my favourite in the entire world, her ready smile and huge blue-grey eyes a memory that warmed me.
I’d taken her at once to the garden sitting room, ordering the scullery maid to find a light afternoon tea and my mother both. Aunt Catherine always insisted Mother speak with her in private first, allowing her to recover after the three day ride, and sometimes I would be invited not long after. Only after dinner did Aunt Catherine sit down to discuss business with Father, and even then she was strict to what exactly the degree of importance could be.
Mother came to the sitting room, her blue eyes soft like they only were for Aunt Catherine. I slipped away for the reunion.
That afternoon, when Aunt called me from my chores, she handed me the usual packet of stories. She warned me to keep them hidden, telling me that Lord Tobias was coming to visit over the summer and if I wanted to keep the stories they had to be secret. Taking my present, I’d chatted happily with her about her life in court, of the Queen and -my very favourite subject- of Reveur, the Princess. It was Reveur who made up the stories my aunt brought me. My aunt scribed them for me, writing them out carefully so she didn’t miss a detail of what the Princess said. She knew how much I wanted a life beyond serving in my uncle’s house.
Thinking of this, I sat up on the bed, wishing it were just another visit from my aunt tomorrow and not the dreaded family reunion. I had my orders already- greet the Baron and his sons, then stay out of sight. I was to be neither heard nor seen if I could help it.
I finished cleaning up the rooms, airing them and dispersing new cedar balls in the linen chest. Tomorrow my Aunt would be here, and even if it were with my uncle, it was still cause for excitement.
“Fidele! Fidele, hurry!” Mother burst into the room, red and wild. “They’re here! Here, a day early!” The excitement in her eyes was a strange sight paired with her body, stiff with trepidation. “Fidele! We have to get me dressed!”
“My Lord, my Lady, presenting your niece, Miss Fidele of Arrowood Estate” My father stood tall, competing for height against his identical brother. The two men looked barely different- except for a lean, weathered look on Father’s face, and the slight fat around Uncle’s edges they were perfect mirrors. They each had bluish-black hair, cut close to the head in severe, modern fashion, and steely green eyes, like the frog pond in winter. Skin a dusty brown, age had not been kind to either, and the shadows of whiskers etched the wrinkles about hard mouths even deeper. They were men who looked best on military horseback, commanding, for the only time when a person was thankful for hard eyes would be when war was called. The greatest difference, I thought, was when they both turned to look at me. Uncle, face a cold, blank dismissal barely glanced my way, instead focusing on his younger brother with a look usually reserved for the darkest of enemies. My father watched me, however, with that considering look he had taken on since my fifteenth birthday. “Fidele, daughter- bow to your Lord.” With a start, I quickly dropped into a curtsy, my face heating. Both Mother and Aunt Catherine were refusing to look at me- I hated these meetings, where every moment is filled with tension and meaningful silences.
“You may rise, niece.” The Baron’s voice was low and chill. Dearly wishing I were anywhere else I set my eyes off into the distance, gazing out over the wheat fields that surrounded Arrowood Manor on three sides. The forest, to my right, would have been better, but I was aware that taking my eyes off of this imposing man would be more dangerous than it was worth. “You may precede, brother.” I nearly collapsed in relief.
“Wait.” Aunt Catherine stopped. It took me a moment to realise her gaze was on me, and I quickly ducked back into an awkward curtsy. Somewhere in the crowd a person laughed.
“My dear?” The Baron pursed his lips, irritation flashing across that craggy face.
“Tobias, I seem to recall my maid was taken ill before we left. I may have need of a young woman to attend me.” Aunt Catherine smiled, leaning closer. “Miss Fidele, perhaps, would be an ideal choice.”
I felt an icy glare lance over me. My knees trembled with the effort of holding myself up, and I stared with watery eyes at the dirt by my feet. A hysterical laugh strained to bubble from me. The group waited.
“I suppose she is at that. Take her, then.” Past me the man swept, and with a shuddering sigh, I began to stand. The procession of cousins and retainers began to file inside, my father and mother insisting on taking encumberments and bringing a light tea to the Lord’s Suite.
“You may begin tomorrow, Fidele,” Aunt Catherine murmured, and with a wink she disappeared into the crowd.
“You and I will take tea in our sitting room, Madam Gabriella.” I heard Catherine announced over the noise. “As always.” The group disappeared inside leaving the household staff lingering.
“Come on, ladies,” said Dana, the head of the lower house under mother, “there is dinner to prepare, a table to set and rooms to put in order. Keep away from the young masters, let the footmen attend them. We’ll have a hard enough time with the Lord and Lady, and the Steward and Stewardess to attend.”
I began to follow them, feeling small with the sudden duty placed on me. A Lady’s maid? No, a Baroness’ maid. It seemed surreal. I had some vague idea that I must start right away. The maids looked at me, smiling. Some had grey in their hair, and all had served under Mother since she became head of staff.
“Oh, Miss Fidele, don’t trouble yourself. We’ll have it all sorted. You go off and have some fun.” Anna, the cook, shooed me away. I gave them a narrow, sideways look. “You heard her Ladyship, you don’t start ‘til tomorrow.”
“Well, if you’re sure Anna.” Without waiting for a reply I ran off.
The wheat fields were the perfect place to hide, I’d always thought. Fury, my favourite reddish mare, was quietly grazing a few paces away, her lead reins tied away from her legs while I lay in the sun. My fair skin would freckle and my deep green hair gain odd light strands, but it was warm- and much better than the tense atmosphere inside.
Aunt Catherine had never even hinted at the idea, never warned me of the possibility. But to follow her, to serve as her maid, or maybe one day as a confidant- I smiled, wrapping long arms around myself, and laughed. It may be a long way from where I was when Grandfather was alive- but it was a sight better than my position now.
“Reveur,” I whispered, letting my blue eyes reflect the clouds in the sky, “only you could have dreamt up this.”
I thought of the stories I’d read, their pages of script detailing lives and possibilities I barely understood. My favourite of the Princess’ stories sat deep at the bottom of a locked box. In this story the princess was exploring the dungeons of the Winter Palace, her imaginings creating instead a vast world of ice caverns and passages. She was an explorer, or a pirate of some kind, and hidden somewhere in the network was a treasure chamber that the greatest treasure in the world was hidden in. Reveur’s quest was to find the chamber before the ice shifted and it was sealed off forever.
This story ended in three ways. In one version, the first one that Aunt Catherine gave me, Reveur never finds the treasure and both her and it are sealed away forever in the caves. The papers of this version also say that after an hour of the princess being “lost” in a cell the guards escorted her to the Queen in protest. In the second version, which came a year later and was much longer, the princess had to avoid the snow monsters that guarded the ice cave entrance, or fight them to the death, after which she found the treasure chamber which turned out to hold nothing whatsoever. This led Reveur to believe that the snow monsters had seen her and moved the real treasure before she could find it, and after she was escorted out again vowed to the Queen to find it whatever the cost. On the third attempt, the last one in my collection, she had penetrated the ice caves, but as she descended into the depths of them the heat of the earth rose and she found herself in an underworld where a demon punished his prisoners forever. The snow monsters dragged her kicking and screaming that time, and later the King had had them punished. There were no other parts to the story after that, although Aunt Catherine tells me that about once a year Reveur has a quiet whisper to the Queen about the ‘ice caves’ and how sure she was that the greatest treasure imagined was hidden somewhere beyond even that dark chamber. Even though the last part she wrote left me with nightmares I would always place it gently back in the box. It’s the promise, I whispered to the sun, that one day, if you only look hard enough and get beyond the scary bits, that something extraordinary could be waiting for you.
“What is the treasure, Aunt?” I asked once, thumbing the pages absently.
“I’m not sure even the princess knows, Fidele, ” Aunt Catherine told me with a bemused smile. “I think that she only knows that she wants it.”
It was something that I wanted too, I knew, even as unexplained as it was. Maybe especially so.
“Nothing ever happens to me, Fury,” I said to the clouds and the horse both, “nothing that Reveur would think at all interesting, anyway.” Twisting up to look at the manor, I creased my brow and tsked. “Not until now, anyway. What could have sparked this? To be a maid for such a distinguished woman- well. It’s an honour.” The princess would think my own dreams really very silly, I thought. They weren’t about seeing dragons and warlocks and valiant steeds in every cloud and laneway. Just a girl and a chore. Fury shifted, tossing her head and I looked at her. “Well, maybe I know of one valiant steed.”
Closing my eyes, I tried to turn off my thoughts. They drifted, drifted like the clouds above me, their huge shifting shadows drifting across my eyelids and taking me under. I fell asleep, listening to Fury’s quiet tread.
When I woke up the sun was setting and the shadow of the haystack nearby was falling across me. I shivered, sitting up groggily, and looked around. Fury was in the distant corner of the field and I could see the candles of the Manor had been lit. They were extra bright tonight, as though having the Baron and Baroness home was cause for excess.
“Oh no!” I cried, jumping up and racing towards Fury. “Mother will kill me!” The evening was falling like a veil, and if I were expected at the table tonight I must change quickly.
Sneaking into the manor, I tried to tiptoe past the formal lounge. Mother, Father and all the cousins were inside, waiting for Lord and Lady Arrowood to descend.
“Fidele,” Mother’s voice drifted to me from the shaft of light, falling across the hall from the open sitting room door. “You are to go straight to bed, daughter. You will need to be well rested for tomorrow. You are dismissed.” Closing my eyes, I raced up the stairs. There was a mortified heat staining my cheeks.
I slipped into my room just as I heard the tread of Aunt Catherine’s slippers on the wooden stairs. Tomorrow I might hold her train, and pull back her chair. They would be sitting for dinner soon, and I’d been sent to bed like a naughty child. The household staff would let me hear of this soon enough, no doubt.
“Oh, rats,” I swore, throwing off my dress and loosening my long plait of hair. The dinner table, although always tense, was a good source to gauge the mood of my uncle and Father without crossing them directly. I quickly stripped my shift and dropped a nightgown over my head. I couldn’t miss it, but I couldn’t let myself be discovered disobeying my mother. Quietly, I cracked the door to my room and shuffled along the corridor. There was a balcony along the left wall of the grand hall that I knew had deep shadows and couldn’t be seen clearly from the head of the table. I could hide there and listen to the conversation without fear, I thought. First, however, I took the servant’s stair to the kitchen and slipped several warm rolls into a napkin.
The tiny alcove above the hall was even smaller than I’d remembered. The dark, stuffy confines were lit in geometric bright splashes by the light of the hall below me- I tucked myself into the narrow space next to balustrades and broke open a roll. The dinner below was already well in by the time I’d arrived.
“My Lord, might I ask, how are our Majesties? It is said by the merchants that they fight?” Father asked. I could see his eyes were lowered, although his address to the Baron was clear.
“A man would be well advised to not repeat such words often, brother.” The Baron didn’t look up from his meal, and the cutting of his knife was leaving grooves in his plate, he concentrated so hard. I thought this man may stab my Father. May, like it was permission.
“Of course, my Lord.” The merchants had dined where the cousins sat now, and he’d given them wine to help the words flow, I remembered. Lord Tobias was never to learn of the honor that Father gave common men, or that he used the manor like only the Lord was supposed to. Distracted, I scratched idly at a trickle of sticky, humid sweat that I felt run in a slow, liquid ooze down over the hollow of my back. My breath was thick with dust and I tried not sneeze.
“Is it a second son’s place to order men to report, brother? I had not heard.” I shifted, annoyed at the crumbs that dropped to cling against my sticky skin, and my mother caught sight of me through the grille. She glared, lips pursed, but then looked away at once. I saw her fingers were trembling and she was clutching her napkin to try to stop it. Aunt Catherine was looking at her in concern, but I knew it was the fear Mother had for the Baron that held both their tongues. I wanted to run down there and stop it, hug my mother in apology and stop the words Father would say.
“Perhaps not, brother, though it may be a Steward’s.” The table stilled. My eyes raced to the Baron’s face, and I found myself unconsciously biting my thumb knuckle so as not to moan. After a pause the Baron nodded slightly, but I knew that the satisfied tweak of my father’s lips did not go unnoticed. I winced as I felt the skin on my thumb break open, and forced myself to replace the digit with a piece of the bread. I watching as Father tried to control himself. My cousin Edward, who I’d learnt that morning was now a squire, was watching father also, his face unreadable.
“You are away from Court, I suppose you cannot have known. Queen Genevieve was concerned about our Princess’ social life. It is one of those things women often bother themselves with, I think.” Aunt Catherine had never looked small to me, but sitting next to the Baron she was paler than I’d seen her before, the usually vibrant yellow hair washed out. She and Mother both were nearly disappearing next to these strange men, and my father not far behind them. “The King should not bother himself with such foolishness. It is well he loves the Queen so, but honestly, this is a bit much.”
“Yes,” Aunt Catherine broke in, trying to lighten the conversation. “The King has decided to allow her to search the kingdom for a suitable group of playmates, or even just one if the Queen prefers. Why, I was talking with her just last week about it. She’s to run a tournament!”
“The Court was dispersed for the Summer! You know that’s the most prestigious season.” My Aunt fixed a smile to her face as my uncle interrupted. I watched as he lay his hand over hers. “It’s all very well and good for the Queen, but what of the court? Business will suffer, you mark my words.” She sat very still, and for the first time in my life I wondered on the subject of love.
My aunt, who I had always thought a beautiful woman well in possession of herself, was now someone that looked very small, when next to her husband. It was apparent that she was not in love with the Baron. My mother, however, loved my father very much- though, I dare say she was not in love with him. She had married into the life of my father- one without prospects above our station, and posted well beyond the court- while she was still young and quite lovely. She was a first daughter of another baron, my grandpapa, whose lands bordered my uncle’s. Her dark hair and eyes were not typical of the modern Quest, and her exotic looks would have guaranteed her a good marriage even if the rest hadn’t. Put simply, there was little reason for her to marry Father- except for love. Mother and Aunt Catherine had befriended each other not long after both their marriages, and I often wondered if they stayed with the hard men my family sprung more for each other. Even now I could see Mother yearning to reach out to Aunt Catherine more than Father to offer her support. And I, too, wanted to offer my flimsy help. The Baron, however, wasn’t done.
“We will soon see the results, I’m sure. The Princess will stop her silly wanderings, become much more interested in important matters, and turn her attentions to the Court. We’ll have no more talk of ‘friends’ from her Highness, and court will resume as it should.” With a sharp nod Lord Uncle Tobias returned to his meal.
“Oh, but I do hope the Queen might visit with us. She was quite understanding that I had duties away, but I feel so remiss at having to leave her retinue.”
“Will she pass by here, do you think?”
As if on cue, I felt a yawn crack my jaws. Mother shot me a covert, angry look as the talk continued, strangely muted and desperate. Looking at the crumbs that littered my lap and the balcony both I decided it might be time for bed. I crawled from the hot little oven of a room and escaped in the slightly cooler corridor. The afternoon nap had tired me more than allowed me to remain awake, so I crept quickly to my room, hearing the table stutter to a pool of murky silent depth behind me.
Once the door snicked shut I considered the conversation I’d heard. It was no doubt that the Baron and his sons would be a smug irritant on my summer, and their conflict with my father near unbearable. However, the oasis of familiarity in the women’s friendship would be a welcome sanctuary should I need one- and the excitement of serving under Aunt Catherine was addictive.
The topic was what caught me, however. Yawning as I slipped into my chilled bed, I thought about Princess Reveur’s loneliness. It had not occurred to me that in her daydreams the princess had never included real companions. Foes, often, even false allies that usually proved to fail in any quest- but never a lasting character that helped secure the goal of the day’s adventure.
“No wonder the Queen is worried,” I whispered to the night darkness. “A girl, left all alone for hours on end, might become very lost indeed. She needs friends. How is she to become a good queen if she doesn’t gain the confidence of her peers?” If the King thought that Reveur was well enough alone then he was a very blind man indeed. “I’d be her friend,” I slurred, drifting to sleep, “but I don’t think I’m quite what the Queen is looking for.”
The summer sun cast a lurid, unflinching light on the Baron’s occupation of Arrowood Manor. My uncle barely acknowledged my existence, no doubt hoping the only girl he was somewhat responsible for would disappear. My father, seeing me as some sort of key to a better life, wanted me far from Lord Tobias’ influence, or that of his sons.
The morning of the second day saw me dressed in my best blue livery, hair tightly pulled back and face pale from the early rise. Mother had shoved a jug of water into my hands for Aunt Catherine to wash with, and the promise of a tray to be delivered in moments. Then, with barely a moment to gather my courage, I was pushed into the Lord’s Suite alone.
It took me a second to grasp the situation, and at once I was relieved at finding Baron Tobias not present.
“Is that the wash water, Fidele?” Aunt Catherine was sitting at her vanity, brushing her pale blonde hair with a heavy silver brush. “Thank goodness. I feel quite horrendous after travelling. Tobias says I mustn’t ride my horse in the heat. Honestly.” She smiled, gesturing me closer. “You can put that down on the side table. First, let me have a look at you.”
After placing the jug aside, I stood nervously before the woman, fiddling with my dress self-consciously.
“Tsk, child,” she rebuked, still smiling, “it’s my Lady, or Lady Catherine now. You may only call me Aunt when in private.” She huffed a laugh, looking down at herself. She was still wearing only a pink, silk nightgown. “I suppose this is as private as we’ll get, however. Still- best to keep it formal. I have a feeling we may need the practice.”
“Lady Catherine.” I confirmed, nodding to remember it. She couldn’t be my aunt in front of others, not now. Now she was my employer.
“Yes. Now, Fidele, today we’ll start slow- First you’ll help me dress, then I must meet with your mother and the staff. You’ll have to make sure there is refreshments and food ready over the day, and in the afternoon we’ll retire to the women’s parlour for afternoon tea. By dinner I’m sure you’ll be well practiced, won’t you.” My heart was thundering in my chest, and a sweat broke out as I realised the magnitude of the task. I was to be a maid, a real, wait-on-you-hand-and-foot maid. I struggled to nod. “Wonderful. Now, here’s the brush. Hop to it.”
The day passed in a haze of lacy, delicate garments and feminine chatter. I was told to stand well away from the door to the library sitting room, allowing access to the various women as they reported to Lady Catherine, and they left either tense and rebuked or shining with praise. The tea was in an endless flow from kitchen to Catherine’s small, smiling mouth, and I thanked all that was holy that I wasn’t required to run for it myself- sending a kitchen girl off to retrieve the necessities was enough, though serving presented its own unforeseen hazards as well. By the time Aunt Catherine had gathered my mother and retired us to the Ladies Garden Parlour I felt like collapsing. With a fond wave, she gestured to the seat across from her, allowing the indiscretion. With a sigh I lowered myself into the soft cushions, thankfully allowing my feet to rest, and was left quite unprepared for her next words.
“Tell me, niece, you’ve started your menses?” Aunt Catherine was always blunt. I looked up, startled, as mother placed, with precision, her tea cup upon its saucer. The red stain I could feel on my cheeks linked me with a rush of humiliation to the red stains she referred to.
“The maids told you, no doubt?” Mother was a lioness at times, always quick to defend me. Aunt Catherine smiled at her, a calming kind of smile.
“Yes, yes. But there can be no doubt, our Fidele is a young lady.” They both turned to look at me.
“Do you think so, my Lady?” I whispered. A lock of hair fell by my eyes, and though I didn’t want to, I glanced down and allowed it to drift in front of them. The green of it made me feel shut away, as in a forest, our forest- safe and with the animals and ferns to nestle me. More than anything I wanted to be with these women, a part of their little circle. But with both of their gazes on me I was scared.
“Well, of course, my dear! Just look at you!” I sometimes wondered what it was that they saw. Am I much to look at? Aunt Catherine, as beautiful as she was, could not of thought so.
“Fidele, you are fifteen now, dear. A young lady in every way, and now the bleeding to prove it. I suppose we’d better announce it, Catherine? That is the usual way of things.” Mother, her delicate hands folded in her lap, arched an evergreen eyebrow in my Aunt’s direction.
“Oh, no! What an idea, Gabriella!” I was as surprised as my mother, both of us widening our blue eyes at Aunt Catherine, unaware before then of another possibility. Any reason I might have to keep the bleeding a secret might have been linked to telling the men, if I’d thought that secrets were necessary. As it were, the failure to act was simple childish confusion- how does one approach the subject of their involuntary liquid emissions? “No, no, Gabriella. Our Lord would seek at once a marriage for Fidele- and men do not often think of girl’s hearts over their own thoughts of appropriate prospects. Besides-” Catherine’s smile widened and she leant forward eagerly. “I’ve a proposal of my own. Fidele how would you like to attend me in the capital?”
The capital. I had not thought of myself ever leaving Arrowood, of anything ever changing from the momentary lull of this point in my life. It seemed like Summer was a forever season, with long honey days oozing past each other without end. Change at Arrowood was a foreign thing- but a herald in the form of the Baron’s sudden return was drawing my life forward. Now a thought was in the air, of a home in the castle, even one day a marriage, and a cottage all my own, with a child on my hip and one in the crib as I made, in a perfect dream way, a soup for a shadowy other-me, a second half- a husband? Aunt Catherine was offering me a future. She was right, also- the Baron was a political man, and I was a girl who had no mind for politics. My heart was swollen already with this new possibility of love and life.
“The capital? You want to take her on permanently?” Mother’s words echoed my thoughts.
“Oh yes! I’ve a mind to take her home with me, and perhaps present her at court. I’d train her up, of course, and sponsor her myself. But, really, there’s no reason she should stay here and settle for Tobias’ offer.” Catherine gestured in a swift cutting gesture, dismissing her husbands ideas. “He’d pair her with an old man, no doubt, or a boy still young. In an estate about the area- perhaps a third or fourth son, or a Steward’s son to match our Fidele’s upbringing.” Mother was still, too still. I imagined caring for another manor, another horse in the stables that I neither owned nor was allowed to care too much for. My hands fluttered about my own cup of tea.
“Is that as much as we can hope for?”
“From our Lord? That may be a bit too much, Gabriella. He holds no love for your Samuel.” I wondered what my father had to do with it. “He would have Fidele married off to a swineherd tomorrow if he thought there was a way. But Blood must marry Blood, and Fidele must marry within her station.”
Mother sighed, then, a sad sound. Until then I hadn’t realised the gravity of the discussion. They were juggling my life like eggs, frail little white blurs that made the eyes hurt and the pupils contract- fear, I felt, like stinging vinegar.
“Oh, Fidele,” Mother pitied me. “What should we do, Catherine?”
“Just what I said. I’ll take her to court, introduce her to a proper husband, a boy we can arrange for you to meet, Fidele, and my Lord husband’s hand will be forced. If he doesn’t have time to find another we may yet have you married and prosperous before he realizes.”
“And the bleeding?” My mother leant closer to Catherine, and now both smiled conspiratorily over the tea. I looked back and forth between them, too frozen with tension to be anything but mute.
“Keep it as close as we can. Did you bleed very heavily this first time, Fidele?”
“No.” I forced myself to whisper, drawing my tea close to my chest. The surface was shivering slightly with the trembling of my hands.
“Well, whisper to the maids that you’d cut yourself or some such. Then, don’t let them see the stains from now on. You may not get them again for a little while, or they could be as regular as clockwork from the first. Just make sure you watch for them.” I nodded, jerkily, and sipped the tea. It was still hot; a swimming, milky stream warming my heart. “Good. Then we’ll dress you in young girl’s livery, maybe change your hair and strap whatever breasts might be appearing.” Catherine smiled at me, a sympathetic look. “You’re a young woman now, but we must hide it for just a bit longer.”
Mother hugged her then, a loving embrace that I envied. I was not a friend to these women. I was a child, to be protected and taught and encouraged- and now as a woman I could never be considered to be on equal terms.
“Thank you Catherine. I know you love us, though we are not your responsibility. Thank you.”
I thanked my aunt also, kissing her hand, before I excused myself to prepare her evening dress.
That night, when I left Lady Catherine to her sleep, I entered my bedroom and locked the door. The window was small and dark, but a solid stream of golden light flooded the small white room from a candelabra I’d stolen from the corridor outside.
Amongst my few belongings a dented metal plate was polished enough to serve as a mirror, if I propped it just so against the head of the bed. I stripped bare, and with a careful, quiet consideration I looked at my body.
The hair was plaited, but I knew it be long and straight, and tinged a dark leaf-like green. I fingered the tips and brushed the loose fringe away from my face, trying to see myself clearly. My eyes were wide, and a clear sky blue, sitting like moons above pink little lips. A face that said, this person is pretty but no more. My breasts were just starting to swell, and hips were appearing where before I had been quite plain. My mother claimed I had the look of a milk maid. I thought maid is right. Who of the Blood would want to marry this person? I had no prospects.
Thinking of the secret the three of us now shared, I set about clothing myself in the style of young girls in these parts. Strapping the small buds I had flat against my ribs, I then drew a short dark blue dress over my head that sat in a loose, sack style around my body. Underneath I knew I was a woman, but a child is all my uncle must see.
In the plate I looked at the girl. She looked pale, young. She looked like a child again. Sighing, I unbraided my hair and tied it back with a dark ribbon. That done, I stripped again and slipped quietly into bed.
My change in appearance went wholly unremarked by the household. Perhaps my mother and aunt were wrong; perhaps I was not a woman, not even nearly. The little girl that everyone saw was who I was, it seemed.
The maids didn’t question my story at all. They threw their eyes across my hair and dress and shoes, vaguely, and smiled small smiles at each other. Shooing me away from the kitchen, they promised again not to tell anyone of the menses- which I didn’t have, of course. Shoving a tray for Lady Catherine into my hands, they sent me off to wake her and promptly forgot all about me.
The only discernible difference I could find was that I was no longer allowed to ride Fury whenever I wanted. The men in the stables, even knowing my age and having seen me around the estate my whole life, saw the clothes and took Fury’s reins away at once. Once every seven-day week I would be given leave to spend time as I would, Aunt Catherine choosing to take a rest day in her rooms before we all needed to dress and prepare for the evening meal. I suspected she arranged it so as to give me time off, but I hardly would question the idea. The long days of summer drew on, hot, sticky days, and they were longer with only the two women and chores to keep me company. In the long grasses I hid my pathetic, childish form and made streams of wavering daisy chains for pearls and crowns and belts to make a waist for the silly dress I had to wear.
Lying in the fields in my fifteenth year, I thought of Reveur and serving and womanhood, and marriage, too- though, to whom, I could never say.
* * *
The rasp of the witch’s breathing filled the hot confines of the cabin. Her hands were limp on the arms of the crumbling couch. They sat, spider’s legs curled about the mushroom plush, stuffing leaking from where they clawed rips with the needle sharp nails, like the spines of rotten fish. Her head, drooping forwards, was shrouded by the bracken tangle of her hair- was it grey? A stream of viscous drool appeared beneath the bush, pooling on her dusty rags. She stirred.
“Keep stirring, girl. Don’t let it still.” The voice was leaves rustling on the wind, shuddering with ice. It made the roaring fire that heated the room seem pale and insignificant. The sweat that poured down the girl’s face didn’t dry up, however. She hauled the wooden spoon around the cauldron, panting, watching the thick potion swirl ponderously. Out the corner of her eye she saw the silhouette of the huge armchair crouch, a menacing spider about to launch itself at her throat.
“What happened to the child, then? The summer cannot last forever.” Oh how well she knew that. Outside the snow howled down on the forest. The girl shook sweat from her eyes and tried to keep talking.