Letha woke with a jerk, her hair fallen over her face, her hands clenched. Greta stood at the door.
“My lady?” asked Greta, her voice uncertain. “I’m sorry to wake you, but his lordship will be returning soon. Will you be getting up?”
“I will,” said Letha, wearily pulling herself up.
“We were expecting you to visit the kitchen sometime today, my lady."
Their eyes met for a brief moment; Greta blushed and looked down.
Once she was alone, Letha opened jars and bottles on the dressing table, searching for something to rub on her hands. She found a rose scented, silky cream, but no matter how much she slathered on, her hands remained heavily chapped.
“Well, wife, how was your day?” Cederic asked, when he came through the solar door.
Letha had rehearsed this moment many times while waiting for him. She tried to pull herself up as she had in her dreams, tried to give him a serene and beautiful smile, but her smile began to dissolve as soon as she tried.
“What?” he asked sharply, walking over to her. “What happened?”
“Nothing,” she tried to say lightly.
“None of that," he snapped. "I won’t have you play those women’s games with me, talking around in circles, always hiding the simple truth. Now tell me what happened."
“I overheard the servants talking,” she confessed, putting her hands over her face.
“When I went down to the kitchen.”
“And what were they saying?”
“I can’t…I can’t say! I shouldn’t have gone down!”
“Did I not, myself, tell you to go down?”
She nodded, her hands still over her face.
“Look at me,” he commanded.
She shook her head. Cederic took her hands and pulled them away. “Stop acting like a child and tell me what you heard,” he said shortly.
To her complete shame, she burst into tears.
“Oh, for the love of God,” he growled and then pulled her into his arms, rocked her back and forth. She smelled strongly, though not unpleasantly, of roses.
“Stop crying,” he said to her softly. “Stop crying, Letha. If you don't tell me what happened, how can I fix it?”
The servants came and laid out a dinner in an awed silence. The smell of stewed chicken and almonds filled the room, along with the clatter of dishes. Embarrassed, Letha tried to pull away from Cederic, but he wouldn’t let her go until the servants were gone.
“Now tell me what happened before the food gets cold,” he said, looking down into her face.
Letha squared her shoulders. “I went down to inspect the kitchen. I overheard them talking. They said that I was too low born to serve and that…"
“What does it matter what they think of you?"Cederic asked, interrupting her. "Tomorrow you must go back down there."
Wildly she shook her head.
“You will,” he said severely. “You will do as I say.”
They washed in silence and sat down to dinner. Letha stared at her plate, emotions swirling, bottled up inside her.
“Stop thinking about it,” Cederic ordered, “or we’ll have no peace tonight. Surely other things happened today.”
Letha tried to push her anxious thoughts aside, though it required a fair amount of effort. “I practiced writing,” she offered.
“Did you? I'll give you another lesson tonight. Tomorrow, after you have inspected the kitchen, I will have Coll ready a horse for you, so you may begin to learn to ride as well. If you wish."
She nodded, eyes bright. “I had a strange dream in the afternoon, when I fell asleep,” she said then, remembering.
“What did you dream of?"
“That I was flying.”
His hands paused; he looked at her, eyes narrowed. “Did you?” he said softly.
“But I fell,” she said, busy sopping gravy with a piece of bread. “And then I woke.” She looked up at his face then, her eyes guileless. “Do you dream?”
He weighed her question for a moment. “Sometimes."
“Does God speak to us that way, or the Devil?”
“There’s far more at work in the world than just the two, my sweet honeycomb,” he said with a grin.
“Angels?” she asked, causing him to burst into laughter.
“I don’t think it’s a laughing matter,” she said, shocked. He had to put his head on his hand then, while the laughter shook him.
“Am I that wrong?” she asked, bewildered.
He took pity on her. “No, Letha, you're not that wrong. You are thinking as you have been taught to think. I wouldn't swallow so completely the teaching of your village priest. Have you ever wondered who taught him?”
“That’s blasphemy!” whispered Letha, fearful.
“It’s heresy you’re thinking of,” he corrected her. “But it’s heresy to deny the truth of God, not the truth of the priest. God and the priest are not one and the same.”
He watched as the idea worked in her eyes, watched as the emotions passed over her face while she wrestled with it.
“Then…then who can tell us what to do?” she asked at last.
“Indeed,” said Cederic, pleased with her.
At his answer, her shoulders slumped, her eyes tired.
“We spend our lives trying to answer that question, and how we search determines who we are,” said Cederic gently. “Come now. Enough religion. Show me your writing.”
Her face cleared in relief.
“Cederic?” Letha whispered, much later. She lay warmly tucked up into the curve of his body. The bed hangings had not been closed and the light from the embers flickered on the bedding. Cederic’s breathing was peaceful and steady just behind her ear.
“Must I go down to the kitchens tomorrow?”
“You must,” he said, implacable even then. “Letha, what does it matter what the servants think of you?”
“It matters,” she said, so softly he almost didn’t catch it. “It matters because it’s true.”
He sat up. “What’s true?”
“Don’t,” she whispered, turning her face away.
“Shouldn’t I look at you?” he asked. “What are you afraid I will see- a peasant girl?”
“It’s not wrong,” he said sharply. “Don’t I have the right to marry where I wish, or must custom dictate to me my pleasure? Where do you think nobility came from? Did they spring, blue-blooded, from Eden itself, along with servants, retinue and lands?”
“I don’t know,” she said miserably.
“No, you don’t. Nobility suffers the same humanity as the rest, the only difference being that sometime in the past their ancestors hewed or prostituted their way to riches in the king’s favor.”
“Now,” he said, wrapping his arms around her as before, “you will go back down to the kitchens tomorrow and assume your duties as mistress of the house, in the same way that one who has fallen off a horse must get back on it. Understood?”
“Yes,” she whispered. “But Cederic…” She both longed, and feared to ask him her question.
“No more questions,” he said, sleepily. “Or must I go back to my own chamber to get any rest?”
He laughed and put his face against her neck. “Goodnight, sweet oblivion.”
The next morning, Letha looked through the chest of clothes herself and directed Greta to dress her in a robe of scarlet silk, an under-robe of white and a belt of twisted gold silk. Greta agreed, wondering at the change in her mistress.
When Greta was done looping and braiding Letha’s hair, Letha looked at herself in the mirror, stepping back and turning from side to side. She was still too skinny and too dark, but the scarlet suited her darkness well.
“You look beautiful,” said Greta, wistfully.
Letha turned and looked at her.
“As beautiful as a true noblewoman would be?” Letha dared say.
“Why, I don’t know what you mean, mistress,” said Greta, her face growing pale.
Letha looked down, took a deep breath, then looked the servant girl full in the face. “I think you must know,” she insisted. “I heard you yesterday.”
“I….Please don’t tell his lordship,” begged Greta, in real fear. “We didn’t mean no harm, it was just servants talking. I told them not to talk that way, but Gwen won’t let it go, she’s that jealous, she is, and that’s the truth, mistress. Please don’t get me in trouble with his lordship.”
“Stop,” said Letha, aghast. “Stop. Greta.” She stopped then herself, not knowing how to proceed.
“I’m sorry,” she said at last, contrite. “I’m sorry, Greta, I didn’t mean to make you beg. There is no difference between you and me, it’s true.”
“But there is, mistress,” said Greta, relieved now, her eyes beginning to twinkle. “A big difference: one that has slept beside you in that bed over there now three nights running.”
“We won’t talk about that,” Letha managed to say.
“As you wish, mistress,” agreed Greta, reaching out to straighten a piece of Letha’s hair a bit. “You do look lovely. Are you coming down to the kitchen today?"
“Yes, right now, before I eat.”
“It’s early yet,” said Greta, uncertain.
“Then they’ll be disturbed,” said Letha, breathless. “I have to do it now or I won’t be able to at all,” she confessed.
“Listen to me,” said Greta, confidentially, “when you go down, ask to see the sugar and spice stores, for that’s what’s most expensive, and what needs to be inspected. Then you must look at everything else and ask what needs to be got from the Town. My mother goes weekly. Tomorrow is her day to go.”
“Thank you,” replied Letha, moved.
When she got to the kitchen, her courage almost failed her when she saw the resentment deep in the old woman’s eyes. Gwen looked up, gaping from where she stood, churning the milk into butter.
“I…I came to... to inspect the stores,” Letha said, trying to make her voice firm.
“As you wish, my lady,” said Marta in a sing song voice. “What would you inspect first?”
A slow blush rose up from her neck line as Letha searched for the answer she had just had on the tip of her tongue. “I will inspect the sugar,” she replied, finding it again.
“Come then, I’ll show you the back room,” said Marta, brusquely.
She took a candle from a shelf and lit it from the fire. She went before Letha, her back bent with age, the candle flame bending and twisting in the draft.
There was a small door beside the massive fireplace. This led to the buttery, a stone paved room, smaller than the kitchen. There were two large, fresh fish waiting on a table, their heads already removed, blood and fishy-smelling liquid spilling into the wood grain.
Off of this room was another room, even smaller, with shelves and cabinets, some of which were locked. There were no windows and it was very warm from the heat of the fire through one wall. The only light came from Marta’s candle.
“You have the keys, Mistress,” said Marta, her face blank.
Letha froze. She remembered Cederic’s warning to her. “I’m…I’m not to open anything that’s locked,” she admitted, feeling caught.
Marta smirked. “The sugar keys you may surely use. They’re the smaller keys, silver.”
Letha unclasped the ring from her belt. Sure enough, among the massive, heavy iron keys were smaller keys. Still, Letha hesitated.
“Come, girl, how else do you think we make you the fine pastries and candied fruit? Do you think I would direct you to some action that would hurt his lordship or go against his work?” asked Marta, impatient. “It’s this here.”
She pointed with a gnarled finger to one of the keys. Letha swallowed, took the key and fitted it into the cupboard lock. It turned smoothly, there was a click and the door swung open, revealing small chests waiting on the shelves.
“This here holds the sugar cone. These other are the spices,” said Marta, businesslike. “We’ll be buying more of sugar and of cinnamon, cloves and salt tomorrow when we go to the Town.”
Marta took her through the whole pantry, showed her where the nuts were kept in jars of honey, where the rendered fat was kept in glazed, earthenware containers. There were sacks of finely ground white flour, stored in barrels to keep out the mice. There were sides of pork and beef that had been smoked, barrels of apples, potatoes, beets and other root vegetables from the fields.
“Satisfied, Mistress?” asked Marta, as they stood on the steps of the kitchen’s back door. It was a sunny day, but chill and high, thin clouds were racing across the sky above.
“Yes, thank you,” mumbled Letha, refastening the ring of keys to her belt.
As Marta shuffled past her, Letha felt her heart lighten, rise up. She straightened her shoulders and looked around her.
She stood at the back of the tower, in a small space between the back wall of the kitchen and the courtyard wall. There was a small door in the wall there. When Letha pushed it open, creaking, she found it led to the kitchen gardens, also walled. Beyond them she could see the bare tops of the trees in the orchards.
It was chill in the narrow space between the tower and courtyard wall, where the sun rarely reached the stone. There was ice rimming the gutters, and out of it was growing a rosemary plant, green as grass and filling the air with its spice.
Letha felt goose bumps rise over her skin. Looking up, she saw the window to the small room on the second floor and shivered.
Letha felt goose bumps rise over her skin. Looking up, she saw the window to the small room on the second floor and shivered.