“Steady then,” she whispered to herself. “Chin up.”
Letha gathered the shift up, took her bundle, and made her way back to the castle. This time she was shown directly to the Princess’s chamber, a small room off of the dais room.
Her royal highness was perched on a cushioned gold chair, eating a breakfast of half a grapefruit and jasmine tea. On another gold chair sat a little white mop of a dog who let off several ear piercing yelps as soon as he caught sight of Letha.
In the morning light, the Princess’s face looked as white and delicate as a china doll, just a tint of pink coming through at her round cheeks and high forehead.
“Quiet, Snowdrop, quiet! You naughty little dog,” cooed the Princess. “Never mind him,” she said, looking up at Letha eagerly and then recoiling from the sight of her. Her eyes went to the bundle.
“What have you brought me today?” she asked eagerly.
Letha spread out the shift, held it up so the light shown through it.
“Mary and Joseph!” cried the Princess. “Oh, bring it here! Bring it here! Oh! Oh, how did you do that? Let me have it.”
She took it up greedily in her little hands, stood and shook it out. “I’ll wear this on my wedding night," she breathed, rapturously.
Letha had a sudden, vivid vision of Cederic’s naked shoulder, the sweep of his neck, the muscles moving under the light from the dying fire. She felt ill.
“How much for this?” the Princess continued, oblivious. She looked at Letha, whose face had turned white.
“I don’t know,” gasped Letha.
The Princess looked at Letha more closely then. “Where are you staying?” she asked. “I can’t think how on earth you could have made something so white when you yourself are so dirty.”
“They have a room, of sorts, for me at the Red Barrel,” Letha answered.
The Princess beckoned to her maidservant, who hurried forward and curtsied.
“Show this woman to a chamber on the south side," the Princess ordered. "I don’t want to hear any nonsense about it being too full. Kick someone out if you must. See that she has a bath first and give her anything she needs for dressmaking.
“And you,” she said, looking at Letha then, “I want you to produce a gown, my wedding gown. I’ve lost my previous things, the tailors were terribly careless and everything has had to be postponed. But their work is nothing like yours. Make me a gown like no one else has ever seen and I’ll see you are richly rewarded.”
“You’re too kind,” murmured Letha, giving a deep curtsy.
“Six gold guilders for this woman,” said the Princess then, and when the money was brought, Letha curtsied again and followed the maidservant out.
They went up corridors and down until Letha began to feel claustrophobic from the sheer size of the place. The corridors were bustling and busy, servants in bright scarlet livery running up and down it, bearing water, buckets, mops, clothing, covered platters of food that trailed mouthwatering smells as they passed.
Great rooms opened up from side to side, rooms full of brilliantly dressed people all milling about, or gathered to hear someone sing or play. Sometimes other corridors opened up, and looking down them, Letha could see a fall of light, a window out onto a garden or an open doorway.
Letha walked with heart pounding, trying to look everywhere at once, looking for one dark head, a particular set of shoulders. But nowhere did she see a glimpse of Cederic, though she knew he must be there, somewhere in the crowd. Would he be laughing at some jest, would he look at the Princess with love, did he kiss her?
Letha forced her those thoughts away and focused on doing one thing at a time. First the room, then the bath, then tomorrow. Everything would be fine, everything would work out. It had to, there was no other way forward.
They went up and up again, down a long, narrow hall. The maidservant showed her to a small room, big enough just for a bed and a little table with a bowl and pitcher. The bed was covered with a thick red coverlet, marked all over with the King’s seal in orange thread.
“I hope this will do, there’s no other available,” said the maidservant nervously.
“This is more than enough.” Letha put her bundle and money on the bed and turned. “Was something said about a bath?” she asked, wistful.
“Oh yes. Just this way.”
Letha’s heart sank at the thought of passing through so many corridors again. But they hadn’t gone very far before the maidservant threw open another door.
The room was slick with water. There was a large, white enameled tub in the center of the room, and pots of water bubbled and steamed in the large fireplace. There were buckets of cold water waiting, set in a row upon a low, stone shelf.
“Let me help you with…your…thing. Things,” amended the maidservant, grimacing at Letha’s smock.
“No, no. I’m certain you have many other things to do, much more important than waiting on me.”
The servant girl half turned, torn. “Well, if you don’t mind,” said the servant, grateful. “We are that busy today.”
“I can see,” agreed Letha sincerely.
Letha rose from her bath a new woman. She had forgotten what a great pleasure bathing was. She put on the robe the servant girl had left for her and padded barefoot, as quick as she could go, back to her room.
She found it full to the brim with rolls of the finest silk, threads of all colors, a snow fall of lace.
The day passed by very slowly. She didn’t dare go back out again, for fear of getting lost and never finding her way back. She remembered the Magus that Selene and Aeolus had spoken of and knew that he must be somewhere in the castle. She had no wish to run into him, she was sure that a magician powerful enough to capture Cederic could make mincemeat of her.
She played with the lace and some needles, but she had never learned to sew very well and soon put that aside. She longed for a piece of whitened parchment and her own quill. She longed for the smell of a book.
The maidservant returned at midday, bearing a new dress.
“Your things are still drying,” she said, lacing Letha into a gown of some shimmering and stiff blue fabric with lace edging. “I hope this will do.”
“This is fine,” Letha assured her, though the lace itched terribly at her neck and elbows.
When she was dressed, the maidservant showed her to a large room where many people were eating roasted pheasant and leeks, with mincemeat pies and great heaping bowls of apples. They appeared to be less important guests and all to know one another, a jolly group. Letha ate her meal in silence, afraid to lift her head.
Letha stayed there a long time, waiting for the maidservant and afraid she had been forgotten. Almost everyone else had gone, leaving their rinds and bones behind them. Pages in scarlet wool were walking down the tables, sweeping the food scraps onto the floor for the dogs, and picking up the pewter cups.
Just as Letha started to think in desperation how she might be able to make her own way back to the room, the maidservant appeared. Letha’s face lit up and she waved to the other girl.
“I thought you might get lost,” the maidservant said, a little out of breath.
“Oh, I would have,” said Letha, rising eagerly from the bench. “Thank you for coming back for me, I’m sorry to give you extra work.”
“Oh, you’re no trouble, Miss. You didn’t ring your bell once.”
“The pull by the door. It goes down to the kitchens. When it’s rung, we know to go up for someone.”
“Oh,” said Letha. “I see. Well, don’t worry, I won’t be pulling it. I have everything I need for now. Unless…” A hopeful, little thought came into her head. “Unless there was some extra parchment about, that might not be missed, and easy to come by.”
“You write, Miss?” asked the maidservant, turning to look at her in amazement.
Letha nodded, her eyes bright.
“Well! Isn’t that something. And sure, there’s mountains of parchment and whatnot around, we’ll go the long way and get some as we go. But if you don't mind my saying, shouldn't you rather be working on that gown?”
The servant girl paused, drew Letha close to her. “It won’t go well with you, if that gown isn’t done,” she warned. “You’ve never seen a temper like her Royal Highness has, if something doesn't go her way.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll be finished.”
They heard the slow racket of nail shod boots from somewhere around a corner ahead of them. The hair on the back of Letha's neck went up, though she couldn’t say why. The two girls were in a narrow back corridor with one lone window, far away one end.
“Keep walking, keep walking, don’t lift your head,” breathed the servant girl, taking Letha’s elbow in her hand and beginning to drag her along as the steps rounded the corner. The sound of his heels echoed off the plastered white walls around them, and from the rounded ceiling above.
Despite herself, Letha couldn’t help but lift her eyes as the person passed by. She caught a glimpse of a white face with heavy, strong features. There was power in his face, power and arrogance hard stamped on it. But it was still a youthful face, and attractive in its own way, although the youth combined with the arrogance was unnerving to see.
Before she could look away, his eyes turned and caught hers. Fear flared up in Letha's stomach and she jerked her eyes away and down.
He paused for a long moment before continuing down the passage. Letha didn't breathe easy until the sound of his steps had died away completely.
“Don’t want to mess with that one,” breathed the serving girl. “No, no, no. But here now, here’s where the parchment’s kept.”
They stepped into a supply room of some sort, lined with polished, wooden shelves. The smell of parchment and sealing wax was very strong.
“Who was that?” asked Letha.
“Oh, that was the King’s Hand,” whispered the girl. “You know.”
“He lives here?”
“Oh yes, all year round. He sits at the King’s right hand. But it doesn’t do to talk about him.” Her voice sank lower. “He hears everything.”
“For sure?” Letha’s voice matched the others in tone, their two brunette heads were close together in the shadows.
“Sooner or later,” replied the other girl. “Everything gets back to him. Well now,” she said in an entirely different voice, straightening up. A door closed somewhere behind them with a bang and then a voice called, faint down the corridor. “How much parchment do you need?”
“What’s your name?” asked Letha, when they reached her room.
“I’m Rosalind."“I’m Letha."
They stood on either side of the open door, looking at each other. Rosalind’s face was broad, she had round cheeks and thick eyebrows. Her eyes were blue green and thickly lashed. Her hair was bound back in a net of woven black thread and she wore the scarlet of the King, with a white apron over.
“What are you going to sew for the Princess?” asked Rosalind, leaning in.
“Come in,” said Letha, opening the door wider.
“Only for a moment, then. Oh, I see they brought you the things.”
“Yes. But I won’t need them, I have my own.”
“Where do you keep them?”
“I can’t say,” said Letha, apologetic. “But I’ll show you the dress tomorrow, early, if you like. Before the Princess sees it.”
“It’ll be something, I’m sure. I saw that shift up close and I can’t see how anyone could make stitches that fine.” She looked at Letha a little doubtfully.
“It takes a lot of training,” said Letha off the top of her head. “Would you like to write?”
“Write?” laughed Rosalind. “Me? I can’t do that.”
“Yes, you can, anyone can. I’ll show you.”
Letha cleared a space on the floor, tossing bunches of material up into corners and unto her bed. Then she smoothed the parchment out, took a quill, inspected the end, and unstopped the inkhorn.
She sounded out Rosalind’s name very carefully, and then wrote it across the top.
“That’s your name,” she explained. “It starts with R. That’s it there.”
“My,” said Rosalind, impressed. “I’ve never seen my name writ out before.”
“You try,” said Letha, handing her the quill.
“No,” protested Rosalind, throwing her hands up. “I couldn’t never, I’d mess it up.”
“At first, maybe. Everyone has to learn that way, by writing badly at first. I used to write in wax until I got good at it. Go on, I don’t mind, you can mess the parchment up and it won’t matter, no one will see it.”
“Sure?” asked Rosalind.
Letha watched, and coached her and after a few tries, Rosalind had made a very passable copy of her own name.
“I know my name,” said Rosalind, holding the parchment up. The ink ran a little, she put it down. “I’m sorry,” she gasped.
“Have you… Have you seen the man the princess will marry?” asked Letha, lost in her own thoughts.
“You mean Cederic? Sure, I’ve seen him.” Rosalind leaned forward, over the parchment. “He’s a magician as powerful as the Magus!”
“You know this?” asked Letha, puzzled.
“Of course, everyone knows it. That’s why the King agreed to the match, for in terms of blood, he’s not rich enough. But he's powerful and the King wants him at his side.”
“What do you mean? He’s not blue blooded?”
“Well, he is, but it’s poor relations, compared to a Princess. He’s got a fair patch of land a long way from here, but it’s mostly woods.”
Letha made little curls along the edge of the parchment with the quill, a soft etching of vines up into the corner. “So they’ll go there?"
“No,” laughed Rosalind. “My word. No. The Princess would never leave the city. They’ll live here, of course.”
“What do you think of him?” asked Letha, looking up. “Is he like the Magus?”
“No,” said Rosalind, slowly. “In fact, it's very odd, indeed. The Princess set her cap for him a year or so ago, and he turned her down. It put her in a rage for months and the King weren't pleased neither. Now he's back and all wound round her finger and quiet as a mouse."
Rosalind sat up suddenly. “God’s teeth, I’ll be in so much trouble! I have to help with dinner. I have to go. Thank you, miss! I’ll fetch you later.”