The first few pages|
My lady and I are being shut up in a tower for seven years.
Lady Saren is sitting on the floor, staring at the wall, and hasn’t moved even to scratch for an hour or more. Poor thing. It’s a shame I don’t have fresh yak dung or anything strong-smelling to scare the misery out of her.
The men are bricking up the door, and I hear them muttering and scraping cement. Only a small square of unbricked sky and light still gape at me. I smile back at its mean grin to show I’m not scared. Isn’t it something, all the trouble they’re going to for us? I feel like a jewel in a treasure box, though my lady is the—
My lady suddenly awoke from her stupor and sprang at the door, clawing at the bricks, trying to shove her way out. How she screamed! Like an angry piglet.
“Stay in!” we heard her honored father say. He must have been standing near the opening. “Stay until your heart softens like long-boiled potatoes. And if you try to break your way out, I’ve told the guards to kill you on sight. You have seven years to think about disobedience. Until you are meek with regret, your face turns my stomach.”
I nearly warned him that such words would bring him bad luck and canker his own heart. Thank the Ancestors that my lady’s fit stopped me from speaking out of turn. When I pulled her back, her hands were red from beating at the bricks and streaked with wet cement. This isn’t exactly a happy-celebration morning, but I don’t see what good it does to thrash about.
“Easy, my lady,” I said, the way I’d speak to a feisty ram. It wasn’t too hard to hold my lady back, even squirming as she was. I’m fifteen years, and though skinny as a skinned hare, I’m strong as a yak, or so my mama used to say. I sang the calming song, the one that goes, “oh, moth on a wind, oh, leaf on a stream,” and invites the hearer into dreaming. I feared my lady was so angry she wouldn’t heed the song. But she must’ve been eager to sleep, because now she’s snoring on my lap. Happily the brush and ink are at hand so I can keep writing. When you can’t move, there isn’t much to do but think, and I don’t much want to think right now.
Sticky sobs shake my lady even while she sleeps. My own eyes are heavy. Perhaps it’s the darkness making us so drowsy. Goda, goddess of sleep, keep us tonight.
It’s quiet and as dark as night, our only light a quivering candle. The door is bricked solid. From time to time I hear voices, so I guess the guards remain outside.
Goda heard my prayer last night and did let us sleep until morning, thanks be. I know it’s morning because I peeked through the dump hole. That’s a tiny metal flap that opens just enough to empty our chamber pot and wash water on the ground outside.
When I push it open, a lip of brick wall prevents me from looking straight out, but I can see the ground five hand spans down. Very thoughtful of her honored father, I think, to design our prison such, so we have a way to throw out our waste and don’t have to breathe foul air for seven years.
This tower used to be a lookout tower, standing as it does on the border between Titor’s Garden, which is her honored father’s land, and Thoughts of Under, which is the realm to the east. The upper story was the lookout, but the windows are bricked blind now. Too easy to escape from, I suppose, or else her honored father hopes to crush her spirits with darkness. The upper floor is my lady’s chamber. The air is best there because tiny slits in the bricks let fresh air slink in. If I press my face to a certain slit, I think I can see blue that is the sky. Or maybe I’m just seeing shadows.
The middle story is our kitchen, with hearth, pots, table and one chair. Stacks and stacks of wood line the walls, and my own straw mattress keeps the floor company. A ladder descends into the cellar.
And here’s the bit that makes me tremble with delight—in our cellar there is a mountain of food! Barrels and bags and crates of it. And we have a fine well dug right in the cellar floor. My lady is napping in her chamber, so I just came down here to look at the food. Seven years’ worth. Such a thing I never imagined. Even though I can’t see the sky, it’s hard not to want to dance about, knowing that for seven years at least I won’t starve. That’s paradise for a mucker like me. How my mama would laugh.
I’ve been much occupied these past days, learning the ways of our tower, counting sacks of flour and rice, barrels of dried and salted mutton, figuring how much we may eat a day and last for seven years. It’s useful knowing my letters and numbers so I can write down the figuring. We’ve boxes of candles and a stack of parchment, surely enough to keep me writing for seven years.
These are the meals I’ve cooked these last days:
Breakfast—warmed milk with sugar, eaten with flat barley cakes. Each morning the guards knock on the metal flap and hand up a horn of fresh mare’s milk. First thing, I splash a drop of milk in the north corner, facing the direction of the Sacred Mountain, and say my prayers. By tradition, I should dribble the milk on soil, not stones, but it’ll have to do since the metal flap faces south.
Dinner—dung cakes. That’s what we muckers call them, though I don’t use that crude term around my lady, of course. They’re made of salted meat (simmered long to soften) and onions, wrapped in dough and cooked on coals. That’s how we used to eat them with Mama, only here I get to add spices—cinnamon and peppercorns! Two times before the tower, I’d eaten spiced food, but never had I reached my own hand into a barrel and touched the raw powders and seeds. Someday when I leave this life and my soul climbs the Sacred Mountain, I imagine the Ancestors will be too beautiful and bright to look at, but their skin and breath will smell of peppercorns and cinnamon, anise, cardamom, and fennel. Heavenly, it is.
Supper—rice and dried peas, boiled with milk and raisins, and sweetened with a pinch of sugar. Delicious. My lady says she’s used to eating the large meal at night instead of midday, but that makes no sense to me. She didn’t order me to change the dinner and supper order, so I’ll keep it the same.
These past meals have been as hearty as I ever had, and if being a lady’s maid means I get to eat the same food as my lady—with spices even!—then you’ll never hear me complain.
Sometimes to get her through a long day, I give my lady a mess of dried fruit or a slap of cheese. Even so, she swears she’s starving. The mouth grumbles more than the stomach, my mama used to say. My lady can’t really be hungry—I think she’s just sad to be imprisoned away from her love and hoping that the food will fill her up where her heart breaks.
But, so much food! Each day we eat three times, and I roll around on my mattress at night and laugh into my arm and pray to my mama so she knows I’m doing fine.
It occurs to me I ought to relate the why behind our imprisonment. And at the moment, with dinner eaten and cleaned up, washing done, and my lady resting, I’ve nothing more to do but stare at the candle flame. It tosses and bobs like a spring foal and sometimes I find myself staring at it so long, the flame is all I can see for an hour after. But now I’ll write.
I only came to the city of Titor’s Garden one year ago. My mother, the Ancestors bless her, died from the floating fevers that take people in the summer. I was alone, my father dead when I was a baby, and my brothers gone to make their world way when I was a girl of eight and still in two braids. I wear one braid now, though still long down my back. My lady wears her braid pinned up, though she’s not married and just one year older than me. I suppose she has the right to do her hair how she pleases, her being gentry and all.
Anyway, with my mother passed to the Ancestors’ Realm, I made the long walk from the summer pastures to the city, hoping to find work. The city had too many people for my mind. Where do they all sleep? How do you feed so many bodies? My head hurt trying to reason it out. I found the house of chiefs soon enough and purchased employment with my last animal. A thin woman people named “Mistress” had me stand before her and tell what skills I had, declaring at the end that I would be of best use working in the stables. When she stood from her chair to show me the way, she winced and rubbed her back.
“Have a pain there, Mistress?” I asked.
She didn’t answer. I suppose it was right nosy of me to speak up like that, but I thought I could help her, and why sit quiet when you can be useful? So I said, “I might help that pain, Mistress, if you let me.”
She didn’t argue, so I put my hand on her back and I started with the song for body aches, the slow, sliding tune that goes, “Tell me again, how does it go?” and then twined into it the hopping tune for buried pain that goes, “Berries in summer, red, purple, green.”
She stretched when I was finished. “You’re a mucker, then? I’ve heard of the healing songs but never thought much about them.” She looked at me real thoughtfully then set in on any number of queer questions.
“What is the proper remedy for a lady in fits?”
“Make her drink warm milk and rub her back,” I answered easily enough.
“Show me a straight stitch.”
And I sewed a line straighter than the finger of Ris, god of roads and towns.
“Let me see your hands,” she said, and checked me for calluses. “Mm hm. And your mucker mother taught you all the healing songs?”
“I don’t know a body who can know them all, but I know the useful ones, like the song for helping a mare birth a foal and the song to get she-yak to stand still for milking—”
“No, no, I have no use for horses and yaks. The songs for aches, of back and belly and head. Like you just sang for me.”
“I know dozens, I guess.”
“Then I’m going to make you a lady’s maid for the most honored house in Titor’s Garden. Our lord’s second daughter, Lady Saren, she’s bound to need a fresh maid by the time your education is done. She certainly seems to go through them quickly.”
Mistress sent me to an old man named Qadan who lived beside the house of chiefs. I cooked and cleaned for him, and in the afternoons, a group of hopeful scribes joined us for lessons in reading.
“As a lady’s maid you’ll need to know your letters,” Mistress had said. I didn’t know then why this is so, but I do now—because unlike most gentry, Lady Saren herself doesn’t know them.
What a strange and wondrous time it was, eating two big meals every single day, sleeping by a fire always lit, and learning the secret language of ink strokes. On days when I finished chores and errands early, Qadan taught me sketching. I was so busy and my belly so full, I would fall asleep even as I was falling into bed.
But some nights, when I tossed on my mattress, awake and staring at nothing, the sorrow would strike me. Quiet there in Qadan’s dark house, my heartache felt like a river, and I was sinking into it, carried away fast in its coldness. That’s the best way I can explain it, and what I mean by it is, I missed my mama.
Sometimes Qadan threw candlesticks at us when his back pinched him sour, but mostly he was a good teacher. He said the best way to practice writing was to keep a book of thoughts. The first one I wrote in was left behind in our rush to this prison. I found this blank book of stitched-together pages among the parchment and inks, and I asked my lady if I might take it for my own. She had no use for it.
It seems a bit of a laugh now, all that time spent learning, and now I find myself in a tower and have no occasion to write my lady’s love letters or keep her books. Instead I’ll record the details of our confinement, so when the seven years are over and the lord’s men pound through the walls, if all they find is a delicate lady and her humble maid shriveled like old ginger roots from lack of sun and air, they’ll know somewhat of our happy time still breathing.
Though my lady doesn’t sound happy. She’s thrashing on her mattress again. I wonder, is it in gentry’s nature to suffer so? Could the Ancestors give gentry beauty and perfection, food and large houses, and a world to do their bidding, and yet curse them with wretched sorrow? My poor, poor lady.
I had best go see to her now and finish my account later. There will be, I’d guess, plenty of time to do so.
While I was washing up tonight, my lady fell asleep on my mattress, not wanting to climb to her chamber. She wears the fashionable shoes with the toe long and curled toward her ankle, which are certainly pretty but do make it difficult to clamber up ladders. It wouldn’t be proper for me to sleep on her mattress, so I’ll finish my story before making my bed of the grain sacks in the cellar. The Ancestors bless her.
After one year with Qadan, Mistress had me take the oath of a lady’s maid. I cut my finger, splashed drops of blood toward the north and the Sacred Mountain, and swore to serve the gentry and my new mistress, however the Ancestors saw fit.
“But I’m still a mucker, right?” I asked.
“You’ll always be a mucker,” said Mistress.
I was relieved. I know muckers are the simplest of commoners and becoming a lady’s maid is a right honor, but I couldn’t give up the wild steppes forever, couldn’t turn my back on Mama and all she taught. I feel like a mucker from the ends of my hair to the mud of my bones.
After the oath, Mistress escorted me to the city’s center and left me at the lord’s house. It was near as beautiful as a mountain in autumn with its three-tiered roof covered in red and green enamel tiles. Inside was less welcoming—grand and cold, the floor stones seemingly cut from ice. Everyone was running around, women were wailing, men were yelling. At the time, I thought it was always that way. I hadn’t heard yet of the trouble.
Hours I spent sitting in a corner, waiting for someone to be sensible. I could see myself in a mirror, and I stared and thought how plain I looked in my mucker boots and working clothes inside a gentry’s house as fine as sugar.
No one paid me the least mind, and though it wasn’t proper, I decided I’d find my new mistress myself. Ancestors forgive me, but what else could I do? I was of no use to anyone just sitting there.
Errand boys rushed up and down corridors, maidens sulked on benches. Some wept. When I asked for directions to Lady Saren’s chamber, no one questioned why I wished to go there.
I entered the chamber slowly, squinting. I’d never met any gentry before and was worried that the glory of the Ancestors might be so bright inside her, it would burn my eyes. I was a little disappointed then to find my lady looking much like anyone else, but still in her white sleep clothes, her hair in a braid with half the hair poking out. Her eyes were puffy and red, her nose wet, her feet bare. She sat on her bed, alone, straight as a tent pole.
The first thing I wanted to do was comb her hair straight and plait it tight, dress her and set her up like a proper lady, let the glory of her divine ancestors shine in her properly. But I had to stand there, quiet, and wait for her to look up and see me. It isn’t allowed for a commoner, of course, to speak to gentry first.
The flats of my feet were aching by the time she saw. And in all that time she hadn’t moved.
“Who are you?” she asked. There was something about her manner that reminded me of a little girl, though I learned since that she’s sixteen years.
“My lady, I’m Dashti, I’m your new maid.”
“You can’t be, they’re all hiding from me because they don’t want—” She considered me. “What is your name?”
“Dashti, my lady,” I told her again.
She hopped off her bed and grabbed my wrist, but tight. Her swiftness and force startled me. “Swear you’ll serve me, Dashti. Swear you won’t abandon me. Swear it!”
“Of course, my lady, I swear.” I didn’t know why she grabbed me and yelled. I’d already taken the oath and learned to write letters and everything.
“All right,” she said, wandering around the room as if looking for something. “All right then.”
I led her back to the bed and had her sit while I combed the muddle of her hair and bound it in a braid, every hair criss-crossing so the smarts wouldn’t wander out of her head. She scarcely moved as I washed her face and hands and underarms and feet.
I looked in her wardrobe for clothing and found two dozen deels. They were like the long-sleeved robes over tunic and trousers that any commoner wears, but they resembled my own deel as much as a worm resembles a snake. Before coming to the city, the only cloth I’d seen was leather, fur, or felt. Qadan taught me the names of other cloths—brocade, satin, damask, silk. My lady had them all, I’d dare guess, and embroidered and fine, layers stitched upon each other, trimmed and as colorful as a summer sunset. You must think I fib, claiming any person could have such clothes and so many, but I swear by the eight Ancestors that I speak true as truth.
When she was dressed and combed and cleaned, the beauty that is Lady Saren began to really show, and I think she felt it, too. Once she even said, “Thank you, Dashti.”
Those words made me feel combed and cleaned myself.
Then her honored father entered, and she stiffened and began to whimper as if fighting off a fit of sobs. He had one crooked leg. This surprised me fit to staring. I don’t mean disrespect, but I’d always thought that gentry would be formed and perfect of limb, lovely and radiant, being the offspring of the Ancestors. But truth be, if her father had worn common clothing, I might’ve thought him a mucker. Either the Ancestors want it this way, or else Under, god of tricks, is deceiving my eyes.
“Still bleating about it, are you?” said her honored father. He was a man too small for his voice. “Titor and his dogs, girl, it’s your mess. Crying about it is like rolling around in your own filth.”
He watched her for a moment, and I swear by Titor and his dogs that there was a touch of sympathy in his eyes. I’d have sworn it on my mother’s memory till he up and slapped her face. It didn’t make sense, as though he slapped her more from duty than anger.
Mama used to say, “Hitting is the language of cowards and drunkards,” and here a member of the honored gentry struck his daughter for crying. Ancestors forgive me, but it made me wonder.
“What’s this thing here?” he asked, looking at me now, taking in my rough boots, my wool deel, my leather sash. “Why is one of your maids dressed as a mucker? Are you a mucker? Answer me, girl.”
I answered him. “Yes, my lord, I was born on the steppes, and when I came to my lord’s city last year I—”
“That’s enough, I don’t want the whole story. You’re nothing to look at, are you?"
I thought that was a useless question. I’m right aware of the red birth splotches on my face and arm, not to mention my dull hair and lips thinner than the edge of a leaf. Mama said that beauty is a curse for muckers. She once told me about Bayar, her clan sister who looked like Evela, goddess of sunlight. And what happened to Bayar? A lord fell for her beauty, got her with child, then left both girl and baby in the mud and never returned. That’s gentry’s right, I guess, but it was a bit hard on Bayar.
“I remember now,” my lady’s father said with a humph, “Mistress Tolui said some mucker girl was coming from Qadan’s. What a hell you walked into, though can’t be worse than your own home. Muckers survive on grass alone, just like sheep, isn’t that right?”
“Well, my lord,” I said, not sure how to contradict gentry, “we—”
He slapped his daughter’s face again, sudden and with no cause, like a snake striking. The sound of her cry was enough to break a bird’s wing. It was then that I began to understand my lady—I think she must’ve lost her mother long ago, before she was old enough to learn how to comfort herself. My poor, poor lady.
“There she goes again!” he said, his big voice booming out of his small head. “She’d gone quiet, and I’ve grown accustomed to her crying. Bawl all you want, wench! No one will hear you alone in the tower.”
At that, she forced her tears to stop and looked right back at him, as brave as anything I’ve seen. “I won’t be alone,” she said. “My new maid is going with me.”
“Is that what you think?” He was rummaging through her wardrobe, pulling deels from their hooks and tossing them onto the floor. “You don’t deserve a maid, and I won’t force one to attend you. So, let me hear the maid say she’s willing to go.”
My lady was clinging to my arm.
“Go where?” I asked.
Her father laughed. “Now I understand.” He took hold of one of the deels and ripped the sleeves off. “I, her honored father, have arranged an enviable match with Lord Khasar. He is the lord of Thoughts of Under, the most powerful of the Eight Realms. And does my daughter thank me? And appreciate her responsibility to form this alliance? No, she declares she’s promised herself to Khan Tegus of the lesser realm Song for Evela. She refuses to marry Lord Khasar. How’s that for gratitude? I’m sending her to a watchtower shut up as a prison and we’ll see if seven years beneath bricks won’t kill her rebellion. So say it, mucker girl, will you lock yourself up with this disobedient child?”
My lady was squeezing my arm so tightly now, my fingers felt cold. One of her cheeks was pink from his slap, her brown eyes red from crying. She reminded me of a lamb just tumbled out, wet all over, unsure of her feet and suspicious of the sun.
She’d be alone in that tower, I thought, and I remembered our tent after Mama died, how the air seemed to have gone out of it, how the walls leaned in, like to bury me dead. When Mama left, what had been home became just a heap of sticks and felt. It’s not good being alone like that. Not good.
Besides, I’d sworn to serve my mistress. And now that her hair was fixed and her face washed, I saw just how lovely she is, the glory of the Ancestors shining through her. I felt certain that Lady Saren would never disobey her father lightly. Surely she had a wise and profound reason for stubbornness, one blessed by the Ancestors.
“Yes,” I said. “I’ll stay with my lady.”
Then her father up and slapped me right across my mouth. It almost made me laugh.
I’m right proud of myself for remembering so much! Maybe I got a few words wrong, but that’s so near how the conversation went I’m going to call it truth. My hand aches from writing and my ink grows thin from watering, so I’ll finish for tonight.
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