Weary from the day before, Kitlyn struggled to drag an overfilled basket of dirty laundry out to a small courtyard behind the castle. As soon as her feet found warm, wet stone slick with moss, she exhaled and let the ponderous burden drop. Wicker clattered on the paving bricks as the basket came to rest beside a round wall of stacked white rocks. About knee high, it enshrouded a fire pit beneath an immense cauldron in which servants washed the royals’ clothing. It astonished her how much laundry Oona could generate in a week. The girl sometimes went through three whole outfits a day.
She glanced down at her simple tan tunic, a zigzag of black cord at the neck holding it closed, and brown breeches. These clothes, she wore every day. The style of her outfit hadn’t changed much since she’d turned twelve, save for varying shades of brown. No longer a child tagging along after the princess, she’d become one of the serving staff. For some months, her shoulder-length hair, tunic, and breeches got her mistaken for a boy. Luckily, she’d filled out a couple years ago, and few made that mistake since.
Beredwyn had always shown a strong, almost grandfatherly, fondness for her, and―much to the chagrin of other servants―tended to look after her. At first, he’d kept her workload laughably light, but gradually, the senior servants had piled on more and more in an ugly, insidious creep.
While she missed her childhood dresses, the sort of workload she shouldered would’ve been hell in such garments. Not to mention, with Guard Lorne teaching them how to handle a blade, her eyes had been opened to the benefit of breeches. The king wanted his daughter trained, and Oona had insisted Kitlyn participate, and so she had. With the constant threat of assassins, it seemed a good idea. Unsurprisingly, Fauhurst didn’t much care for her sharing the lessons, but the king thought it a wonderful idea, since the two girls were often near each other.
Kitlyn let off a sad sigh as she crouched to add more wood to the fire under the laundry pot. ‘Often near each other’ hadn’t been ‘often’ much at all lately, but Oona did need protection. Kitlyn had overheard frightening things while dusting the war room, an invisible nobody in the background while the men discussed the tides of battle. Only two days ago, there again had been an unfavorable turn in the fighting, and the inevitable rumors spreading around the castle had put the whole staff on edge. Evermoor had two or three warriors to each one of Lucernia’s soldiers. At first, better arms and armor tilted things in favor of the king’s army, but the Evermoor savages had learned how to fight opponents in full plate, and lately, the tide turned sour for Lucen’s chosen. It also hurt that something like two in five of the savages had magic, while only one in several hundred Lucernians had the gift. Add to that, their habit of attacking in small raiding parties, darting back and forth across the Churning Deep before Lucernia’s large garrisons could react, and things… well, they seemed not to be going well at all.
Kitlyn tested the water with her hand. Finding it hot enough, she grabbed the first garment and tossed it in. After rolling her sleeves up, she got elbow-deep in her work. Nine straight hours of scrubbing floors yesterday had left her arms and legs sore; bending at such a slight angle over the pot sent a scorching burn up her back. She forced away the discomfort and smiled at a few of the servants as they walked by. Two kitchen maids gave her warm greetings, followed by a hearty wave from the stable master as he left the kitchen after snatching a post-breakfast snack.
The servants who worked outside of the castle proper had always treated her well. Only the ones inside got catty. That suited her fine enough; she much preferred to be outdoors with the stable hands and groundskeepers. Grass under her feet, sun in her face, and wind in her hair—certainly preferable to being down on her hands and knees with a brush in some dim, stuffy hallway.
A few minutes shy of an hour—and about half the clothes—later, sweat ran down her face from hovering over steaming water. She leaned away from the pot to cool herself, enjoying a momentary cool breeze.
Four men in well-appointed clothes exited one of the rear doors and took the shortcut via the courtyard to the stables, following Rorick, the gamekeeper.
“Pleasant morning, milords,” chimed Kitlyn as they passed. “May Lucen bless your hunt.”
Rorick smiled at her. The noblemen with him spared only a second’s disdainful glance her way before going by.
She sighed, but kept on her pleasant face. Showing them how much it bothered her to be thought of as less than a person would only let them win. Oona never cared how poor she was, not when they’d been little kids, and not now. A few tears joined the laundry water before she became too angry to cry.
I hope they fall off their horses. Arrogant, stuffed up―
“Oy, Kit!” shouted a high-pitched child.
Pim, the head cook’s son, raced out the kitchen door. The eight-year-old skidded to a halt at her side, almost falling as his bare feet slid on the moss-covered stones. Years of laundry water kept the cobbles around the fire shroud slick with green. He recovered his balance and offered her a tart, his smiling face framed by a near-spherical mass of dark brown hair.
“Me pa jes’ made ’em.” Grinning, the boy jammed another raspberry tart into his mouth.
Kitlyn shook water off her hands, letting the seventh of Oona’s nightdresses soak a little longer. She accepted the treat, still warm from the oven, and nibbled.
“Pa said he been makin’ treats since he was small as me.” Pim mumbled around sugary jam and pastry. “I fink he’s teasin’.”
“Well, he’s not the head cook because he’s poor at it.” Kitlyn winked.
The boy wiped his hands on his drab brown tunic while grinding his right big toe into the moss. “Kin ya do the fing wif the stones ’gain?”
She sighed at the basket. “I’d love to, Pim, but I’ve got so much to do.”
“Aww.” He hung his head.
“All right, all right.” Kitlyn knelt in place, Pim flopping down beside her, cross-legged.
She put a hand on the ground; a tingle of magic rippled up her arm and washed over her. Her mind reached out to the earth and stone, drawing a chorus of a hundred whispering voices into her thoughts. It took her only a second to sense a handful of small rocks in the grass. At her beckoning, the grape-sized stones bounced free of the soil and came rolling over with a scraping clatter.
“Wow!” whispered Pim, as awestruck as the first time he’d watched her do that.
The stones tumbled across the cobbles and leapt into the air, orbiting Kitlyn’s hands like the beads of a necklace. The boy’s head moved about in a spiral as he attempted to keep his stare locked upon a single stone in the rotating ring. Kitlyn spread her fingers apart and pushed her arms down. As the desire formed in her head, the stones clapped together. A handful formed a man-like shape while the majority gathered in her best approximation of a dragon. Faint green energy swirled around them all, brightest in the gaps between stones.
Pim cheered and clapped as the man and dragon circled, though rather than fight, the man-figure climbed on the dragon’s back and they flew into the air.
“Yer pa mus’ be so happy you kin’ do magic,” said Pim. “Tha’s good as me pa’s cookin’.”
Kitlyn slouched. The stones began to separate, but she willed them back together, creating a rippling series of clicks. “I don’t have a pa, Pim. I’m an orphan.”
He tilted his head. “A what?”
“An orphan is what you call someone who doesn’t have parents.”
Pim blinked. “How’s you not kin ’ave parents? The gods jes’ make yas?”
Kitlyn giggled. “No, silly.” The stone dragon beat its wings in a slow, rhythmic pulse as she made it fly. “I had parents… but something happened to them, or maybe they gave me away.”
He gasped. “You mean like died?”
“Yes. Like died.” The construct fell apart; rocks scattered to the cobblestones. Not that she wished death on her parents, but better that than being thrown away. “Maybe. I don’t know.”
“You been here f’ever.” Pim licked jam from his fingers.
She gave him an apologetic look, stood, and resumed washing clothes. The momentary break had allowed her arms to cool, making the water painfully hot. “I don’t remember anything. Beredwyn said I’d wandered onto the castle grounds when I was much smaller than you are now. I found the princess, but I was too little to understand who she was, so I walked up to her and we started playing. When they figured out I had no family, the king decided to let me stay.”
“Oh.” Pim held up the next bit of clothing when she added the finished nightdress to the basket of clean-but-wet. “He’s nice.”
“He is.” Kitlyn smiled, attacking the princess’ blue gown in earnest. “You’d best be going back to your papa now, Pim, he’ll be looking to have you aid him again with the delivery, I’ll wager.”
Pim bobbed his head before skittering off in the direction of the kitchens.
“By Orien’s golden beard!” yelled Fauhurst from behind.
Kitlyn started and jumped, gritting her teeth to hold back a shriek.
“It’s almost noon, and you’re still not done with that? You’ve got the linens, yet… and, I don’t know, surely, the hall to clean?”
She leaned her weight on the rim of the washbasin, scowling at the water. “I did the hall yesterday, Master Fauhurst.”
“Well it certainly doesn’t look like it.” He folded his arms. “Tell me, girl, when you cleaned the floor, did you use a brush and soap or merely a rag and wishful thinking?”
Kitlyn closed her eyes, hands kneading the dress under the water. “I’ll go over it again.”
“See that you do. There’s no room here for a layabout.” He lowered his voice and ambled closer. “Your little ploy didn’t quite work out as you envisioned, did it? Expected to laze the days away with the princess?” He clucked his tongue.
“Master Fauhurst.” She glanced at him through a few strands of hair. “I’m quite sure at the ripe old age of three, I hadn’t the faculties to scheme such a grandiose thing.”
He frowned. “Well, nonetheless, Beredwyn’s been soft on you. You’re expected to do as much work as anyone else here.”
She stared into the grey water. “Yes, Master Fauhurst.”
Pleased with himself, Fauhurst strutted back into the castle.
She eyed the ground, tempted to make a rock lean up and trip him, but thought better of it.
Kitlyn rushed the last six pieces of laundry and struggled to lift the basket of wet clothes. She half-carried, half-dragged it around to the side of the castle where a row of two-story-tall bushes cut in tapered columns walled off the royal garden. There, she hurried to arrange the princess’ clothes on a line to dry before running inside with the basket on her back. Her wet, bare feet clapped on the smooth marble floor, echoing down the great hall and attracting the disdainful stares of over a dozen servants and a few guards. A few started to shout, mistaking her for some urchin, but before any managed to utter a complete word, they recognized her.
At the princess’ door, she hesitated. She wanted to see Oona, but with Fauhurst’s tirade fresh in her memory, the princess’ bright blue-eyes on her would feel patronizing no matter how genuine her happiness.
The room sounded quiet, so she rushed in and headed for the empty bed. Not long ago, they’d been inseparable. More and more often (this moment included), she had no clue where Oona was at any given moment. Her lip quivered as tears lined up like soldiers inside her eyes. She’d had a friend, but little by little, they’d taken her away and left her stranded here as a lowly worker. That didn’t bother her so much; she could’ve been happy dredging out the stables, as long as she could spend some time with Oona afterward. But not if Fauhurst had anything to do with it. Certainly, the man had to have better things to do than pester her, but he had such an obsession with status, her mere presence in the castle offended him to no end. Of course, if she sought help, Beredwyn would likely scold him for bothering her, but complaining would only let him win―and set him up for yet another, even less palatable, flare-up.
Kitlyn gathered the linens from the bed into a wad and hugged them in an effort to compress the mass to fit in the basket. Perfume, scented shampoo, and the fragrance of Oona’s presence filled her nostrils. She clutched the bundle for a moment in silence, pretending she hugged Oona, basking in her vicarious presence.
“Come then, girl, the linens won’t wash themselves.” Fauhurst’s voice echoed out in the hall.
She cringed, squeezing the sheets tighter. Careful not to glower, she packed them into the basket and hauled it out into the corridor. He stepped back to let her pass. She made it five steps before he cleared his throat, stopping her.
“I’ve changed my mind about the floor. When you’re finished with the linens, the garden walk is infested with seedpods. It needs the attention of a broom, and perhaps a mop.”
Kitlyn drew a breath to suggest it the groundskeeper’s responsibility, but Fauhurst’s tone had softened somewhat. Had Beredwyn confronted him? Would she regret it? “Y-yes, Master Fauhurst.”
Head bowed, she hurried off with the princess’ bedclothes. She couldn’t figure out how she’d wound up doing the jobs of four different servants. As Oona’s handmaiden, Beredwyn told her she would hover around the princess and attend to whatever needs may arise… not clean floors like a chamber maid, or wash things like a laundry maid, or dust here and there like a house maid. Barely any of her time of late consisted of being the princess’ handmaiden. What few precious moments they did share, often supper and a short while thereafter, resulted in scorn heaped upon them both, though neither of them cared. Or tried not to.
If she had to assign blame, most of the extra work came from Elsbeth; the girl dripped thwarted ambition and jealousy like sweat. Fauhurst as well never missed a chance to throw in a task or two whenever Beredwyn or the king didn’t have him gainfully occupied. Otherwise, the man devoted his every spare minute to hounding her. Kitlyn ground her teeth. Oh, if she could only send them both hurtling into Tenebrea’s arms!
After dumping the linens into the water, she stared at the roiling froth. Lately, it seemed as if even Beredwyn worked to distance them from each other. Her heart sank as her thoughts tumbled to the most probable reason: the war progressed poorly for the Kingdom of Lucernia, and they regarded Kitlyn as a distraction Oona didn’t need in a time of crisis. They may well have been right.
With tears blurring her vision, she washed the linens as fast as she could. The garden had long been a place of joy for them. Oona so loved to go there whenever possible. Perhaps Fauhurst meant to give her a hint? He certainly had sounded much more pleasant with that ‘order.’ When at long last, she finished, Kitlyn wrung out the last of the bedclothes, dropped them in the basket, and hurried to hang them so she could attend to the garden walk.