Writing this section was hard work, mostly due to Valentine’s day celebrations, a few hours of work doing family bookkeeping, and a suddenly very chatty (though loving!) husband. Focusing on writing while someone is trying very hard to get your attention is nothing but frustrating, and ends with a shut laptop. Anyway, I will do my best to finish it up here! I have a few half-written notebooks kicking around from classwork days, and I write down my ideas in one of them first, then do a few tweaks when I post. This section might be “interesting” or it might be quite good. This is a slower-paced section where the situation will be better filled in and some questions will be answered with more questions.
Jolly good, folks! Let us begin!
Even past the dulling medication, my head pounded–possibly it was worse than the ache in my arm. I was in bed, but the sheets were fresh and a newer, softer blanket was thrown over me; the drapey curtains about the bed were gone, and one post hosted a not-so-decorative carving all too near where my head had been last night. A serrated blade the length of my hand laid on my chest, the hilt some sort of antler I was not familiar with.
When I shifted, paper crinkled. I read it.
“Your first trophy. Keep it close in plain view. -H”
Much as I wanted to puzzle over the meaning, I wanted even more to wet my throat and get off the pillow that had been propped too stiffly under my head; it was the cause of much of my headache. Slipping out of bed, I staggered toward the patio door where servants used to keep a fresh pitcher on the queen’s tea table. It was still there, with water collected from last night in it. I drank deeply the cold and slightly dusty water, playing with the knife and pondering.
Who was the assassin? Who sent him? Why did he want me dead? Or was I the case of mistaken identity? I wasn’t royalty, but maybe someone did not know that—-or believe it—-and took offense at the perceived treachery. Or maybe someone just hated anything representing the old regime? Whoever the man had been, his weapon was not familiar to me. My brother had been recruited as a blacksmith’s apprentice shortly before I became a maid in waiting; perhaps he would be able to tell me more—-supposing, of course, that he had survived the onslaught, then the winter, and that I would even get leave privileges to go see him when there were perfectly fine blacksmiths here.
Disgusted with myself for thinking that way, I slammed down the pitcher, then winced and set it down a second time, more gently. It was pretty, basic white with ruffles over the lip and two blue songbirds painted in flirting flight on the side. I went back inside and inspected my quarters.
While the maids had done well, they had missed several drops of blood on a runner, and I shivered as I passed a window cut open with precision—-I had not seen anyone capable of doing that to glass, but then again, I never had been around the glass blower’s guild.
The maids also could not cover the writing gouged into the wall.
T R A T R
Confusion skewed my face, reflected in a conveniently placed looking glass, as I stared at it for a minute before I realized it was not an acronym, but a horribly misspelled word. “Traitor”. The appropriate terror I should be feeling was misplaced by even more confusion. What sort of sloppy assassin would wake us up, wound us, know how to write, yet spell so incorrectly? To mention nothing of the strange knife, the strange attack, and the strange way he slit the glass the way a seamstress would slice a circle of fabric.
Could I have been confused with royalty after all? My reflection was not one I was used to seeing, but I forced myself to stare into the glass, to see myself the way others saw me. I looked nothing like royalty. Nothing at all. My cheekbones jutted high and profound right under sallow eyes, my chin came to a narrow point, my nose was round like a pig’s snout. To mention nothing of my hair dangling, sparse and knotted and oily, about my shoulders like a raven had decided to make a nest out of fine straw. Very fine, very used straw.The rest of me looked much the same—-as though my pale skin were stretched tautly over a skeleton. I smiled. My teeth were white and straight, from a diet free from sugar and bread, even while in the riches of the princess. It would be odd to be part of a culture that broke bread at every meal. Very odd indeed.
The walls waved at me, and I slipped into the queen’s sewing chair until the dizziness passed, my head suddenly knocking against my skull as though tiny gnomes were rapping on the inside of my head with mallets. Did I drink something to upset my head again? …the water. I hadn’t checked the water for poisons. Stupid. …not that I knew what to look for. For now, I had to hope for the best. The old king’s food testers had either sought their own training, or died a gruesome death. I needed to find as much of the old staff as possible, gather information, see about getting some of that poison-tasting training. Hunter should know, too, but I didn’t want to lean on him any more than absolutely necessary.
I knew where the old staff would be—-or rather, three places they could be. The princess had liked to sneak out from curfew to meet with one of her guards, and in truth, I had rather appreciated his physique as well, a man solid with muscle who knew how to use a sword. Or so were the rumors. After I got Belle, milady made me remain in her quarters, and I sorely missed the outings. Now I had no dog at my heel, no instant identifying marker.
It was like dropping a wool coat about my ankles in the summer’s heat—-so liberating, so vulnerable. I froze, my hand on the door latch, clutched in an instant of paralyzing fear, staring at my quivering hand about the door, wondering how I had marched over here so quickly. I should stay here. It was safer. But I was anxious to see Belle again, though I had a gut feeling she was fine. I should wait until someone comes to escort me. No, I was my own person. I had been safe before the hound, and I would be so now. The eyes of the castle—-and beyond—-were on me, and I needed to hold up my head.
I yanked open the door, then paused in the hallway, unsure which way to turn. One way would take me to the seamstress, to get clothes beyond my tattered tunic and jerkin. The other would take me to the sick wing, to Belle. As liaison, I would require formal wear that would appease both cultures, and that might take some doing. I would also need casual wear…and a ceremonial crown for the spring festival. I wondered what the new king would think of the gaudy, painted horns tied together with wire and colored glass beads. Maybe I could procure a cloak for now, so I could go find old staff members. Belle was fine. The nuns were good, a fantastic import and far better than the washed-up drunkard who amputated the wrong limbs on more than one occasion. Belle was fine.
I faced the seamstress’ direction, but my feet carried me in the opposite direction, down the steps, and to the sick bay.
On the first cot next to the door laid the blue hound, her brown feet twitching convulsively in a dream of chasing. Her lips puffed with the occasional muffled bark, and I chuckled to myself, noting that her bandages were scarce and of crisp linens marred by only small spots of red. Everything looked better during the day.
A nun approached, and in this light I saw that their robes were made from different shades. Hers was red-brown with a white wrap about her hair. “Belle was a very mannered hound for us.”
If she was trying to urge camaraderie by praising my dog, it was working. I smiled and just barely resisted rubbing Belle’s ear—-I didn’t want to wake her yet. “Good.”
“I am Sister Hilda, but you may call me Hilda. What is your name?”
It had been a long time since anyone had called me by name, or had the intention to. “Belle.”
She shook her head, and a curl of brown hair came free from her wrap. “That is what we call your hound. What do I call you? Do you have a middle name?”
“Only royalty have middle names, and heraldry have surnames.”
Hilda smirked. “That is going to change, take my word on it. But, what to call you…”
“Just Belle will work fine. Not to rush or run out, but I was on my way somewhere…” I trailed off, not wanting to get this nun started on a naming spree.
“You can’t go out looking like that.” She said it matter-of-factly.
“I was going to go to the seamstress.”
“The king has been unable to fill the position yet,” she sighed in annoyance, “I’ve been doing the work meanwhile. Let me see what we have on the shelves that can work for now…”
She came back with a pile heaping over one arm, and gestured with the other that I should step behind a curtain to try them on. I did so, and Hilda selected the best outfit for me based on which ones fit. It was a matching black and brown tunic and skirt set. The skirt annoyed me, but Hilda would not have me wearing jerkins. She let out a small exclamation when she saw the serrated knife, and showed me how to wear it about my hips with a belt designed to show it off. I would rather she let me tuck the knife in my shirt, as I’d planned, but I would tolerate it for now.
“I want to see that Belle remains here for today,” she said once she was done examining my handiwork.
“I was planning on it.”
“Where are you going?”
Hilda shrugged her large shoulders. “It was worth asking. While you’re ‘out’, see if you can find a girl handy with a needle, would you? I could use the help.”
“I will see,” I said, and left the wing, my mind spinning with how to get to the meeting zones undetected and without letting anyone know where I was going. Plus, it had been a while, and the princess had gone in the dark. Things looked much different now, especially with who-know-what changes done to the city…It bothered me to know that someone—-likely Hunter—-was watching my moves. Not that I blamed him.
Three hallways later, when I was in a remote area most people did not know existed, I confirmed I was being followed.