The Duke left two days later, having concluded his usual business of hearing petitions, settling disputes, and overseeing his holdings. He took his duties very seriously, I learned, and when he worked on the business of his estates, he applied himself wholly to it. When he listened to the disputes of the peasants, his eyes were fixed on the petitioners, his brow furrowed; his expression said that he would not take kindly to being troubled for a little matter, but I saw that he listened to each dispute fully, and decided fairly, even against his own soldiers and retainers.
He rode out with the builders himself to oversee the maintenance of the defenses—an important piece of our lives here, on the border of Ismir. The peace of my childhood had been hard-fought and hard-won by the Duke himself, but whatever memories he might have had, looking over the place where he had led his men to battle and glory and death, were hidden deep beneath his habitual scowl.
He would work through the dinner hour with the record-keepers, the stewards, the guard captains, leaving his chair empty in the great hall—though we served a dinner to it in any case, and the cooks made rich meals fit for a feast, to celebrate his presence there.
The Lady presided over these meals like a queen, calling for wine and music. She had done her hair very fine under her headdress, I noticed, and she wore gowns with gold embroidery and all her jewels. She had dressed the little Lady Miriel finely as well, although Miriel’s hair was allowed to tumble over her shoulders. The girl was wearing velvets and silks, even little chains of gold and silver at her waist and pearls at her neck.
On the last night of the Duke’s visit, I was serving wine to his soldiers, and so was standing by the little side hallway as he came into the hall. I knew, from creeping partway up the stairs to his tower chamber, that he had been discussing the increasing number of raids on our outlying villages, and I thought he looked tense. He looked up as he came into the hall, a figure in all black, hidden in the shadows at the edge of the room, and only I saw the look of contempt on his face as he observed the high table.
Later Temar would tell me, sometimes one moment can give you the whole key to a person. I did not know enough yet to have the whole key to the Duke, but this moment gave me one of many keys. It reminded me that he was a man, a man who could be spurred to anger like any other. For now, I saw that although the Duke publicly observed every pleasantry that a brother should, he loved the Lady not at all. More so, she was distasteful to him, worthy of no respect.
And I saw that the Duke’s eyes flicked from the Lady, posturing and smiling, to Miriel, who sat quietly at her side. He watched his niece carefully, as if he would see everything about her from the curve of her cheek, as if he could learn everything about her from the set of her shoulders. He looked at her as he looked at his stone walls and his guard towers: something in the making, something to be perfected.
And then he looked over at me, and I shrank back against the wall.
“What are you doing here?”
“Wine?” I offered, and I held out my pitcher.
He stared at me for a moment. “Are you sure about her?” he asked, and I realized that Temar must be standing out of sight in the hallway. I craned my head to look.
“Very,” Temar said, and he gave me a smile. “You should eat, milord.”
“Yes.” The Duke narrowed his eyes at me and strode away to the high table, and Temar shot me a wink before following. I smiled after him, and then went to refill the soldiers’ cups, for they were shouting for more drink.
Later that night, as I shared the day’s knowledge with Temar, I asked him, “Why am I to study with the Lady Miriel’s tutors?”
“To see what you can learn,” Temar said easily.
“But why?” I persisted. “No one tests the other servants. Why me?”
“That’s a very good question,” Temar said. “Keep thinking on it, little one.”
“But why?” I asked. I felt my face warm when he smiled at me, when he called me by a nickname; but I had the sense that I did not want him to think of me as a child. He only laughed at my frustration, and I flushed.
“What if I were to lie to you?”
I was shocked. “You wouldn’t.”
He looked very serious, more serious than I had ever seen him before. “Wouldn’t I?” His face softened. “You must learn to find things out without ever asking what you are after. I know you can do it, Catwin.”
I was warmed by his praise, but still discontented. I looked down at my hands and nodded. Temar stood and stretched.
“Time for you to get some sleep. I will see you in three months’ time.”
“What?” I looked up, and Temar smiled his easy smile. “Don’t worry. You will have much to learn while we are gone. Study well, make your tutors proud.” Before I could move to hug him, or speak to beg him not to go, he was gone.
That night, I dreamed that I walked through driving snow, surrounded by the eerie whistle of a winter storm, engulfed in white. I knew this wasn’t real; I had been out in enough blizzards, securing the flocks and battening down the shutters of the castle, to know the merciless bite of the wind on my skin, the slow seep of water into my old boots. No, instead I walked as if the wind could not touch me. I could feel nothing.
I craned to look about me, and could see only hovels, unlovely little shacks, battered and leaning. The path curved away and up, and I looked ahead: the castle, my home, rose into the sky at the peak of the mountain. It was half-lost in the swirling snow. White-out, I thought—a term I had heard the guardsmen shout to each other. No wonder no one was about. They were hunkering down, wondering if their supplies were lost on the trail. As soon as the snow cleared, they would venture out to see if any caravans needed help, and they would demand the goods in return for aid.
A cry caught my ear, the wail of a baby. It was coming from the shack near me, and after a moment’s hesitation, I pushed open the door and went in. I knew that I was not truly here, but habit ran strong, and I closed the door carefully behind me, as Roine had taught me to do. In the little shack, a weak fire burned in the hearth, and a woman lay on an old cot, a man at her side with a baby in his arms.
“Just hold her,” the man pleaded.
“No, no.” The woman was wild-eyed. She looked so gaunt and so feverish that I wanted to draw the man and the infant back from her; there was death in those eyes. “I don’t want her!”
“It’s over, now,” he assured her. “It’s over, and we’ll get the healer. I promise, you’ll be well soon. Just hold her.”
“No!” She pushed him away with her feverish strength, and fell back onto the pillows. The baby was screaming at the top of its lungs, wrapped awkwardly in a blanket. So small, I realized. Hardly any cause for the blood I saw on the blankets.
The woman was shaking her head; I could see her cracked lips still forming the words: no, no, no, over and over. Her eyes were half-open, and I saw that they were the same grey as the storm clouds of winter, an omen of the blizzard.
“Take her away,” she said. “She’s…”
“What is it?” The man held the baby close to him and leaned over to hear his wife more clearly. She whispered something and I could see his brow furrow.
“You don’t know what you’re saying,” he said, but he looked worried. He looked down at the bundle in his arms, her little face still screwed up, yelling. “Please, rest. I’ll go to the castle now, myself—“ he cast a glance outside at the blizzard, and I saw his lips move in a silent prayer. It was foolhardy at best, and more likely it would be the death of him. Then he looked back at his wife, and his face twisted. He could not let her die. “Rest. Daniel will take care of you. I’ll go now.”
“Take her with you,” the women rasped. “Take her, and leave her outside.”
“What are you saying?” He recoiled, but she reached over to grab his arm.
“She’ll be betrayed.” The woman’s voice had a sudden, awful clarity. “She was born to be betrayed.” She had lifted off the pillows, but now she sank back. She was shaking her head again. No. “Kinder to let her die now. See how she cries…” She was slipping back into the fever haze. “Take her,” she whispered.
With a start, I recognized the squalling little bundle as myself. Even knowing this for a dream, believing that this could not possibly be them, I took a step closer to look at my parents: my mother, with honey-colored hair and grey eyes, on the edge of death, and my father, with the strenuous leanness of the poor, holding my tiny self awkwardly in his big, work-roughened hands.
Was it possible that these were truly my parents?
The man laid my tiny self carefully in a cradle, out of reach of my mother, and he grabbed his hat and his cap and hurried out into the storm, quite oblivious to my silent presence. But when he was gone, I saw the woman’s eyes focus on me.
“Are you an angel?” she asked, and after a moment, I shook my head. She was shivering, and as much as I knew it to be a dream, I walked over to the bed and pulled the covers more snuggly around her. Still, she shook with cold; she was far gone. Her head lolled towards me. “Please…” she whispered, and I leaned forward to her.
“You need to take her away,” she pleaded with me. “My daughter. She’s cursed. She was born to be betrayed, and when it happens…” Her voice trailed off and I leaned closer still.
“What?” I asked urgently. “What will happen?”
“The balance…tips,” the woman whispered. “Endings.” She was fading away from me. “Promise me…” she whispered, and, with a start, I woke soaked in sweat, throwing the blankets from me and heaving for breath. Roine, already awake and at work, looked over at me curiously.
“Strange dream.” I sank my head into my hands. “I saw the day I was born.” Roine put down her work and came over to me, kneeling beside my cot.
“What did you see?”
“It was only a dream,” I said, irritable in the wake of my fear, but she shook her head.
“You dreamed of the prophecy,” she guessed.
“I saw my mother. I thought.” I shook my head. “I mean—I know I didn’t.” She only watched me, and I swallowed. “She said, I would be betrayed…and the balance would tip. It would end things.” The words, so prophetic in my mother’s feverish rasp, half-obscured by the howl of the blizzard, were ridiculous now. I shook my head again, to clear it. “It’s nothing. It means nothing.”
“She said the balance would tip?’” Roine clarified, as I got up and began to move about the room. I cast an annoyed look at her over my shoulder.
“In the dream, she did.”
“And end something...”
“Yes,” I said impatiently. “It was just a dream.” She did not respond, and I looked over at her. She was gazing at me, as sadly as I had ever seen her. Repentant, I ran over to give her a hug. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to be rude.”
“I know,” she said, into my hair. “Go get some breakfast. You’ll need to go to your lessons, if you’re to go to court.”
“I thought you said we weren’t going,” I said, surprised. I felt a flush of joy at the thought of going after all, of seeing someplace new, of seeing Temar’s smile again.
“Things change,” Roine said simply. “Go now.”
Genre - Fantasy
Rating – PG-13
Website http://www. moirakatson.com