This scene occurs immediately after Shasta, Erinda and Lyris have fled the palace in the aftermath of Kumire’s barbarian coup. SPOILERS! You probably don’t want to read this if you haven’t read the book yet… Just sayin’. So there was almost an entire chapter of content that was cut from this part of the original, mostly due to pacing issues. The chapter is actually too long to post in its entirety in one go, so there will be a couple more installments in order to finish it out. This first section is a particularly slow-paced, reflective mourning period for Shasta, but it has some interesting character-development bits that seem worth sharing.
The cold was the first thing Shasta became aware of, a biting cold against her face that was so irritating it yanked her out of sleep. She moaned as she opened her eyes, squinting against the light that streamed in through the window, and tried to push the annoying cold away. Erinda’s familiar features came into focus, as the chambermaid rinsed the rag she’d been holding to Shasta’s split lip.
“Good, you’re finally awake. You had us worried for a while.” She wrung the cloth, but Shasta pushed her hand away when she tried to reapply it.
“Where am I?” She put a hand to her throbbing head, propping herself up on one elbow.
“In Ardrenn, Highness. With Captain Vaughn’s friends, you remember?”
Her eyes filled with tears as memories of the night before came crashing back, too awful to believe. “It wasn’t a dream?”
“I’m afraid not, Princess.” Erinda’s eyes were wet, too. “But you’re safe here, and that’s what’s important.”
“My father…” Shasta fell back against the hard pillow, remembering the sight of Kumire’s dagger in Soltran’s chest, the front of his doublet soaked in blood. “The King is dead, isn’t he?” The tears spilled over. Erinda nodded, sympathy written all over her face, and Shasta choked a little. “This can’t be happening.”
The door opened and a woman came bustling in, carrying a tray. “You’re awake at last, poor dear. Gave us quite a fright, you did, showing up at our door in the middle of the night, dress all spattered with blood.” She set the tray down on a table at the foot of the bed and regarded Shasta kindly. “Well now, this ought to help make you feel better. Regain some strength, that’s what.”
She picked up a bowl and carried it to the side of the bed, shooing Erinda away and taking the chair. She held the bowl out so Shasta could see it held some sort of stew, with chunks of vegetables and meat floating through it. She realized for the first time that someone had dressed her in a clean shift, and her brown hood was hanging from a peg on the wall by the door. Her hand went to her throat, and she breathed a sigh of relief to feel the feather necklace still resting there. It was the only thing she had left of her family.
Shasta blinked at her through her tears. “Who are you?”
“Oh, I’m sorry, dear, I forgot you missed the introductions. My name’s Syanne. My husband’s Roald. We’re friends of that captain of yours. Grew up with him as kids, bless his heart.” She held out a spoonful of the stew. “Here now, you eat this and you’ll feel better in no time.”
Her vision blurred again as she stared down at the spoon. “I’m not hungry.” Fearing she might hurt the woman’s feelings, she added, “But thank you.”
Syanne returned the spoon to the bowl and smoothed Shasta’s hair out of her face. “You’ve had a terrible time of it, from what I’ve heard, though these girls of yours don’t know much about what happened. Something about Chancellor Kumire committing treason? Doesn’t surprise me, the simpering little rat. And the king, murdered—why it’s nearly impossible to believe.” This drew a sob from the Princess, and her brows knitted with compassion. “Ahh, there now,” she said, handing the bowl of stew to Erinda and gathering Shasta into her arms with maternal warmth. “It’s all right, my dear. You just let it out.”
And Shasta did, crying into the shoulder of a perfect stranger, with heavy sobs that racked her body. Her father, the last surviving member of her family, was gone. She was alone, ostracized from her home, probably being hunted by the same man who had methodically picked off first her brother, then her father. Maybe he’d even murdered her mother as well? This was unthinkable. It was a nightmare. But the pain in her lip, the pounding in her head, the straw poking at her from the thin mattress, the smell of the stew, it was all too horribly tangible to be a dream. She clung to Syanne, her tears soaking the shoulder of her dress, and Syanne stroked her hair gently.
“There now, dear one. Nothing wrong with a healthy cry every now and then. And no one’s more entitled, I hear.”
“Know what’s really ironic?” Shasta made a hysterical sound, somewhere between a laugh and a sob. “Today’s my nineteenth birthday. Father was going to abolish indentureship in Ithyria today, and instead he’s been killed. I never should have asked him to draw up those proposals. Kumire wouldn’t have done this if…”
Syanne took Shasta’s face into her hands. “Now stop that, Highness. There’s no use in blaming yourself. I know you’re grieving, but you’re Queen of Ithyria now. You mustn’t waste time feeling sorry for yourself. You need energy for other things.”
“Queen?” Shasta looked from Syanne to Erinda. “But Kumire’s captured the palace.”
Syanne gave a grin. “You’re the rightful heir to the throne, Highness, and everyone knows it, whether you’ve been formally crowned or not.”
Shasta leaned back against the pillows, and gave a shuddering sigh. “I’m not ready for this. I can’t do it.” Her head was pounding, and her heart hurt. She wasn’t even sure she could summon the motivation to get out of bed, much less take responsibility for all of Ithyria.
“You don’t have much of a choice, now do you, my dear? After all, if you don’t take the crown, we’ll all be stuck with that traitorous Kumire on the throne. Do you want to see that man ruling your parents’ kingdom?”
Kumire had killed Daric. He’d killed Soltran. He’d tried to kill her, marry her, rape her, then kill her again. Stopping him was motivation enough. “No,” she said, stiffening. “He’s a monster.”
“Well then.” Syanne took the bowl back from Erinda and held out another spoonful. “Eat up, young woman. You’re going to need your strength.”
This time Shasta obediently opened her mouth and swallowed the stew. It was good enough to awaken her appetite, and she reached for the bowl and spoon herself. Syanne watched her with a satisfied expression, and after a few more bites Shasta gulped and looked around the room.
Erinda stepped forward. “Reciting her evening prayers in the next room.”
“Evening prayers? How long was I asleep?”
“Nearly all day.” Syanne stood. “I’ll go let Her Grace know that you’re awake. I’m sure she’ll be relieved, she’s been praying over you incessantly since you arrived.” She left the room, and Erinda returned to her seat by Shasta’s bedside.
Shasta kept eating, though grief still made it difficult to lift the spoon. Anger, on the other hand… anger was better. Anger kept her moving. Kumire had to pay for what he’d done. He hadn’t just murdered her family, he’d brought a horde of barbarians into the palace. He’d turned Bria into a traitor. And when she thought about what he’d done to Talon… The spoon thunked back into the bowl. “Erinda, where’s Talon?”
Erinda would not meet her eyes. “Captain Vaughn hasn’t returned yet.”
“What do you mean, he hasn’t returned? It’s been all day. Surely they would have escaped by now.”
The chambermaid took the bowl from her hands with a neutral expression, but there was a note of worry in her voice. “Perhaps they had to go into hiding for a while.”
Shasta felt her throat closing up in panic. “You don’t think they’re—” she couldn’t bring herself to finish the thought.
Erinda patted her hand. “Captain Vaughn gave his word. He’ll be here.”
Talon’s face, the awful bruises and gashes, the sound of fists striking flesh were still vivid in Shasta’s mind. Her burning eyes began to fill again. “Talon… Erinda, if anything’s happened to her I don’t know what I’ll do.”
Understanding flitted across Erinda’s face, with perhaps a hint of envy, and she stood, carrying the bowl back to the tray. “Talon’s a survivor, Highness. She’ll return to you, I’m sure of it.”
Lyris entered the room, moving in to give Shasta a hug. “Oh, Princess, I was so worried.” She pulled back and regarded her shyly. “You… you don’t have to answer this if you don’t want to, but did Kumire—?”
Shasta’s face grew hot. She twisted the thin coverlet beneath her fingers. “No. He was going to, but Captain Vaughn arrived in time.”
The priestess let out a breath. “Oh, thank the Goddess.”
“I… I don’t want to talk about it, if you don’t mind.” The recollection of his fingers against her skin made her sick to her stomach.
“Of course, Highness.”
Shasta swung her legs from the bed, and Erinda moved to help her stand. She straightened her nightshift and looked around the room, and the chambermaid seemed to understand. She went to a cabinet against the wall and returned with a dress in her hands; it was a pale green and yellow stripe, and the fabric was faded. “Syanne said you could borrow some of her clothes.” Erinda looked down at the cloth in her hands. “I think… I think this is her best dress.”
Shasta put her arms up so Erinda could tug the dress over her head. The linen was worn, and so was the bit of lace at the neck and cuffs; a neat row of wooden buttons marched down the front of the bodice. Women like Syanne did not wear corsets or hoops; they needed mobility in order to accomplish their daily tasks. The dress was several sizes too large, so Erinda tucked up the sleeves and tied an apron around the Princess’s waist.
“There,” she pronounced when she was finished. “Let’s take care of that hair now.” She took a brush from the table at the foot of the bed. “Syanne brought this as well, for when you were feeling better.”
Shasta winced as Erinda began pulling the brush through her tangled hair. After their frenzied ride into Ardrenn, her waist-length mane had been tangled into a mass of snarls and knots. It took the chambermaid a good amount of time to work them out. To avoid further tangling Erinda plaited it into two long braids, one over each ear, in the same style she usually wore.
She felt a little better, but it was dark outside now, and her anxiety was growing. “I want to wait where I can see the door.” It was late, but she had slept most of the day and had no intention of going back to bed until she knew what had happened to Talon and Captain Vaughn.
They led her out of the small bedroom and down the stairs to the kitchens, where Syanne was scrubbing a pot. “Well there you are, now,” she said, pausing to wipe the perspiration from her forehead. “Take a seat over there by the fire and I’ll bring you all some tea.”
There were only two chairs, rough-hewn wooden things that were very well fitted, if a little rustic. Shasta and Lyris sat, as Erinda helped measure tea into strainers and Syanne brought the kettle over. Shasta accepted the cup she offered, though the thick, glazed pottery was more unwieldy than the delicate china she was used to. The taste reminded her of her last trip into Ardrenn, years ago when Kumire had taken her, Lyris and Bria for a tour of the city as part of their lessons. If she’d known then what she knew now, she would have taken the bullwhip out of that nasty merchant’s hands and beaten the chancellor to death with it herself.
Such violent thoughts surprised her. She’d always had something of a temper, but this was the first time she ever really wished she could inflict physical punishment on anyone. She wanted Kumire to pay for his treachery. But what was she going to do? How could she ever hope to fight back against Kumire, against his barbarian army, when he’d succeeded in turning many of her own royal guard against her family? Talon would know what to do, she thought.
Erinda took a seat on the floor, and Shasta spent a long time staring into the flames of the kitchen fire, sipping her tea and only half-listening to the friendly chatter between the other women. She wasn’t in a talkative mood, and as the evening wore on she grew more and more agitated. What could be taking the Captain so long?
Roald entered the kitchens through the back door. Shasta jumped to her feet before she realized who it was, and he gave a sympathetic chuckle at the look of disappointment on her face.
“Glad to see you’re feeling better,” he rumbled, “though I’m sorry I’m not the one you’re waiting for.”
Shasta sank back down and flushed. “I’m expecting Captain Vaughn. He promised he’d come to us here.”
Roald nodded in understanding. He was a very tall man, perhaps a few years older than Vaughn, but with the same dignified manner, and he rubbed his chin. “Vaughn keeps his promises, Your Highness.”
“I know.” Shasta turned the teacup in her hands. “That’s why I’m worried.”
There was really no appropriate reply, and so after kissing his wife and accepting the bowl of stew she handed to him, he sat cross-legged in front of the fire. “I overheard a couple men in the shop today, talking about what happened at the palace. It seems Kumire is spreading word that the King has been assassinated. And the rumor is, the Princess is dead too.”
Shasta snorted. “Well, I’m not.” She took another sip of tea, and Roald chewed thoughtfully.
“No, and thanks be to the Goddess for that, or we really might be at the mercy of that blithering idiot. But Highness, if Kumire is spreading the word that you’ve been killed, it’s almost certain that he has men out looking for you to ensure that the rumor becomes truth. In fact, I saw several more gentlemen in guard uniform on the streets today than usual.” He swallowed, and Shasta did her best not to make a face of disgust. No one in the palace spoke with food in their mouths.
Shasta lowered her head and stared into the bottom of her teacup, where the tiny tea-leaves that had escaped the strainer had settled into a greenish heap. She swirled the cup, watching them dance through the liquid before settling again. Roald misinterpreted her silence for fear. “Don’t worry, Highness, we’ll make sure they don’t find you here.”
“Thank you, Roald, but I don’t want to put you or your wife in any undue danger.”
“Nonsense, young woman. t is a very great honor to have the Princess of Ithyria beneath my roof. I only wish I had more comfortable accomodations to offer.”
She regarded him through a myriad of emotions, and finally just nodded. “Your hospitality has been so generous. I don’t even know how to thank you.”
“You just did.” He tilted the bowl, slurping up the last few drops of the stew, and Shasta had to hide her amusement behind the tea mug. Roald’s manners were certainly different from what she was accustomed to. Erinda hopped up and refilled her cup, freshening the leaves in the strainer from the tin in the kitchen and dropping it back into the mug for her.
Lyris made some comment on the excellent craftsmanship of the kitchen chairs, which launched a conversation about the cabinet-maker’s work that Shasta only partially paid attention to. She felt hopelessly frustrated. Here she was, in hiding, with Kumire’s men searching the streets for her. She had no army, no advisors, no idea where to go from here. Syanne had said that she was their Queen, but Shasta had never felt less like a royal in her life. She was wearing a borrowed dress, sitting in a cabinet-maker’s kitchen drinking unsweetened tea out of a crude clay cup. She could be the daughter of this man and his wife, a common craftsman’s child, and the thought made her heart constrict.
If only I’d been born a cabinet-maker’s daughter. I might not have enjoyed the luxuries of the palace, but I’d still have my family. No one would assassinate a cabinet-maker because they wanted to wear his… She shook her head, uncertain of what a cabinet-maker would wear in his trade that could be equivalent to the crown in her mental analogy. Gloves? Apron? Then she shook her head to rid it of the tangent. The point was, she’d always taken her position for granted; being a Princess was the sort of fairytale birthright that all the girls in storybooks dreamed of. When a heroine in a book became a princess, she was immediately granted a happy-ever-after. But reality couldn’t be more opposite. The power and prestige of royalty came at such a high price. The responsibilities were so heavy, and the position so precarious. Shasta couldn’t imagine how her father had ever endured it. Her hand went to the feather at her throat.
Her eyes filled with tears again, but she stubbornly blinked them away this time. She was now nineteen winters old, a young woman, too grown up to cry helplessly into her teacup no matter how terrible the situation was. Crying wasn’t going to help anything, and it didn’t even make her feel better. She stared again into the fire, watching the shifting pattern of light and shadow it cast across the hearth.
Finally Syanne took the cup from her hands. “Your Highness, it’s very late. You really should go to bed.”
“I’m not tired.” She looked over at her maid and the priestess. “Your Grace, you and Erinda should both get some sleep. I’m going to wait up for a little while longer.”
“It’s all right, Highness, we can stay with you.” Erinda offered, but Shasta shook her head.
“No, go to bed. I don’t mind. I could use a little time alone, I think.”
Erinda nodded and stood, and the priestess pressed a cool hand to Shasta’s forehead. “Goddess save you, Highness.”
Shasta gave a half smile. “Sleep well.” Her eyes followed them as they ascended the stairs.
Syanne dropped the teacups into a washtub, and curtsied. “Roald and I will be upstairs. If you need anything, Highness, please don’t hesitate to ask.”
“Thank you, Syanne, but I’m sure I’ll be fine.”
There was a clunk as Roald put his bowl into the tub with the cups. He put an arm around his wife’s waist and gave a little bow. “Good night, Princess.”
“Don’t stay up too late,” Syanne added, and then the cabinet-maker and his wife went up the stairs as well, and Shasta was left alone in the kitchen.
She looked around at the strange patterns the firelight cast on the walls, and sighed. It was so surreal. Her father was gone, and the future of an entire kingdom had fallen on her shoulders. She stood and walked around the room, but there was really nowhere to go and nothing to do. She paced the floor until her eyes fell on the washtub.
She walked over to it and stared down into the soapy water. Shasta had never washed a dish in her life, but she needed something to keep herself occupied or she might drive herself mad. Figuring that if she did it wrong she could just leave the dishes in the tub and no one would be the wiser, she reached in and pulled out a cup. The dishwater was cold, and Shasta stared at the cup uncertainly. Now what? She swished it a few times in the water, but there were still tea dregs sticking to the inside. Picking up a damp rag from the table, she dipped it into the water and scrubbed the inside of the cup.
That was better, but now there were soap bubbles clinging to the pottery. She fetched the pitcher of drinking water at the other end of the table, and poured the water over the cup to rinse it. There was a brown linen towel on a hook by the door, which she used to wipe it dry. Then she turned the mug in her hands, feeling oddly satisfied. She could be useful after all.
With an energy bordering on enthusiasm she repeated the process with another cup, and then another, and finally turned her attention to the stew bowl. By the time she’d finished, all the dishes had been cleaned and stacked neatly on the table, and she experienced a rather pleasant sense of accomplishment as she stepped back to survey her handiwork.
Shasta made herself another cup of tea and returned to her seat by the fire, stretching her legs out in front of her. She’d washed dishes! And she’d figured it out all on her own. Such a small thing would probably seem silly to women like Erinda and Syanne, who’d been doing such things all their lives. But for Shasta it was a triumph, no matter how minimal; a sign that perhaps she was not completely useless.
She didn’t know how long she sat there, gazing into the fire, but her eyes began to droop, the crackling of the flames lulling her into a comfortable doze. The darkness in the room began to lift, and there was an eerie paleness to the kitchen when she was startled from her rest by a pounding on the door. It took a few seconds to register, then she sprang to her feet and ran to open it.
(To Be Continued…)