“Hello there, Karlyn!” Wendelis called to the boy who was swinging his legs from his perch on the kitchen table. “How is the pie?”
Karlyn smacked his lips. “I don’t know yet.”
“You ought to know,” Eslaveth teased, glancing up from the eggs she was beating. “You have eaten three pieces already.”
“That is because I can’t decide if I like it or not,” Karlyn answered.
Wendelis took the fork from the little boy’s hand and stole his next bite, mumbling through a mouthful. “Well, I like it.”
Eslaveth shook her head. “What brings you here? And please don’t ask me for details about the castle. I’ve been over it so many times today that my throat is raw.”
“My master sent me.” Wendelis swallowed, assuming a grave air. “On very important business.”
“In our kitchen?” She cocked an eyebrow skeptically.
“Well, no. That was my idea.” Wendelis brightened. “You see, there’s a very bonnie lass that works in the kitchen but, uh,” he looked around, “I don’t see her today, so I’ll be off before I’m missed.”
“Wait! We have a chair that needs to be mended,” Eslaveth said, gesturing toward the offending furniture which drooped against the wall. “It fell out from underneath a guest in our best room.”
Wendelis laughed. “Wish I could have seen that.” He inspected the chair, replying slowly. “I might be able to fix it here. Then you wouldn’t be charged.”
“That would be nice,” Eslaveth commented. “I’ll pay you with supper.”
“Fair enough.” He grinned, keeping his eye on the splintered leg. “I’d settle for a kiss.”
“Chair’s not worth that,” she answered.
“Hey, now!” Wendelis pouted. “I’ll have you know I’m a very good kisser.”
“But how did you get so good at it, eh?” Eslaveth planted a fist on her hip and turned with raised eyebrows.
“Observation,” Wendelis said.
“I’m sure.” Eslaveth plunked the pile of soiled plates into the dishwater to soak.
“You know, a little jealousy goes a long way,” he threw back, as he stepped toward the doorway. “Breon! Bring a hammer, will you?”
Merra hurried through, arms full of folded lines.
“Karlyn! Plates are piling up. Don’t let that pie distract you.”
“Yes, M’m,” Karlyn spoke through a mouthful, losing a large piece to the floor. He brushed off his hands on his pants before sprinting through the door.
“Eslaveth, that custard?” Merra asked.
“It’s nearly done,” Eslaveth answered. “Then I can help you with the beds.”
“Nay, work on the dishes,” Merra said as she picked up a platter to wisk out the door. “They’ll take you all night if they keep piling. I don’t want you missing the dance.”
“She’s too spoiled for our dances now,” Wendelis called.
The back door banged twice behind Breon as he carried in the hammer, glancing only briefly at Eslaveth before he dropped his eyes and crept across the room to hold out the tool to his brother.
“Here,” he said.
“Thank you,” Wendelis said.
Breon swallowed and stepped back, again flickering his eyes toward Eslaveth, but his greeting was hardly audible. “Good morning.”
They’d already served the noon meal and morning was far past, but Eslaveth smiled at the boy. “How are you? Are you hungry?”
“No. Thank you,” Breon said.
“You should try the pie anyway.” Wendelis hauled the chair up by the leg, waving the hammer toward them. “And I just realized if I start hammering in the kitchen, it’s going to make the guests think the house is falling in. I’ll fix it in the barn.”
Breon swayed as his brother strode across the room, leaving him standing between the worktable and the pantry. He opened his mouth, caught his own breath, and then turned to pick up a plate, scraping the scraps into the bucket for the chickens.
“Your aunt works you too hard,” he said.
“Not nearly as hard as your master works you,” Eslaveth answered, moving to cut him a piece of the pie herself.
Breon shook his head, transferring the pile to the tub. “Wendelis said your uncle tried to adopt you,” he said softly. “Are you going?”
“No,” she answered. “I only went because they asked me. They promised to bring me home and made good on it.”
“What was it like?” Breon asked.
She reached for the smock to protect her second best gown as she stepped beside him. “It was strange,” she said. “It was beautiful and exciting and — frightening.” She dropped her voice to a whisper, “And the worst part is, I can’t even enjoy the memories anymore because I keep thinking about this riddle one of the entertainers told. I scarcely saw the royal family after that.”
Speaking the words felt like cursing the royal family all over again. She hadn’t told anyone about the strange warning – not even Magar. But she whispered it to Breon, watching his face change into contemplation.
“Do you think the girl was right?” she asked, handing him a dripping plate.
Breon rubbed the drying cloth in several circles before he asked, “You mean that the rich are corrupted and destroying their own country? And that the poor should throw over the king and start anew?”
“Is that what you hear in it?” she asked. “Because I did.”
Breon set the bowl on top of the stack glancing toward the closed door. “I think something must change. But if we overthrow one leader, who’s to say that the next will not be just as corrupt? Murdering someone because they are wealthy or related to someone doesn’t mean they are guilty. Before we moved here, we worked the land under Lord Lesonna. He was a good man. I’d hate for him to be hurt because of anger toward the king.”
Eslaveth turned to stir the pot over the fireplace, holding her skirt back from the flames. She wanted to tell him that she had met Lord Aindriu and ask if he had known Silvah or if his mother had left before he was born, but she feared to change the subject.
“What of the king?” she asked.
Breon’s mouth straightened into a grim line. “I’ll not speak against the king. No leadership will be perfect. Even the group that is revolting has division, bribery, and traitors.” He shook his head. “I’m going to stay away from it unless I can discover a better alternative.”
Eslaveth bit her lip against the war within her. She thought of the stag and the battered queen. “I agree about the other men. I think the plotters are going about it all wrong. But it would be easier for me to support our king if I didn’t know that he killed my father.”
Breon was silent for a moment. “He was keeping the law, Eslaveth.”
“What law? My father broke no law!”
“Are you certain?”
“No,” she whispered, then took a breath. “It would be easier, I think if I saw him after he died. Sometimes, I still expect him to walk through the door. A stranger comes that looks like him, and I nearly run to him because I think that he has come back for me.”
Breon stacked the bowls onto the shelves, replying softly, “I saw my father buried, and I still forget. ”
“Ah!” Stefen stuck his head through the kitchen door with a widening grin. “I wondered who was courting back here in the kitchen. Should have guessed it was Breon. Your aunt’s got a smile on that could stretch across the sea.”
Breon ducked his face. “I was leaving anyway,” he said.
“Don’t forget your…” Eslaveth began, but the boy was out the back door before she could pick up the plate with the cooled pie.
Stefen winced. “I didn’t mean to scare him off. Did he ask you to the dance?”
“No, he didn’t,” Eslaveth answered, turning back to the washtub. “He was being a gentleman and helping me out.”
“A gentleman?” Stefen’s eyes widened before he turned to shout across the dining hall.“Blear! Eslaveth is defending a man! Could it be a sign?”
“It could indeed,” Blear called back.
Stefen’s head swung back to her as he leaned further into the room, careful to keep his toes behind the forbidden threshold. “Well, are you going to wait for him to work up the courage to ask you or are you going to let someone else take you? Several curious minds out here want to know.”
“Several curious minds should probably ask someone else,” Eslaveth answered. “I may not be going at all since you just frightened off my help.”
“Out of my kitchen,” Merra said, scooting past the boy with another stack of dishes. “Unless you’re here to give free labor.”
Stefen laughed and shook his head. “Hope he asks.”
Merra shook her head as the door swung shut, whispering, “Those boys…”
Eslaveth worked, irritated at the interruption. She didn’t often speak her thoughts about the country or the choices of the king, but Breon had kept more than one confidence in the past. It was amusing to compare the difference of the week before at the castle when there was nothing except leisure time before the formal gathering. All down the street, her neighbors walked with quickening steps, sloshing water from buckets, jogging down steps, and shutting up their shops because for once no one was lingering.
As she finished sweeping the deserted dining hall, a fiddler began plucking the strings of his instrument, already tuning up for the night. Laughter carried through the bedroom window as she changed out of her work clothes, surveying her two best dresses that lay folded side by side. Her old burgundy dress that had been sewed by firelight as stories were told in the corner of the dining hall, and the green gown she’d memorized in the mirrors of the castle. She wasn’t likely to have another chance to wear it, but wearing it tonight would set her too far apart from every other girl in the dance line.
She sighed, wondering if she was vain for preferring the green, but she picked up the burgundy and slipped it over her head, watching the folds fall and sway around her ankles. It was tighter this year, for it had been designed for her last year when the crops had flooded. Now the harvest was safely in, it’s abundance displayed in windows; a vase of golden wheat at the bakery, branches of yew at the blacksmith, and wildflowers that defied the coming cold peeking from the newest home on the street which indicated the newlyweds were hoping for their first child.
She exchanged a coin for a cup of hot wassail touted by a neighboring boy. His father was a cheat, and it was little surprise he’d set his children to take advantage of the holiday, but the earthen pitcher kept the bare hands warm, and the coin lessened the glint of fear in the blue eyes.
She turned down an alley to cut across to the farrier’s where Breon worked, regretting the choice as soon as she spied the blond boy on the horse. Daryn must be out collecting the dues owed to his father. She hadn’t seen either him or Lord Yarboron at the gathering and wondered if the lord had fallen out of favor with the king. A sword bobbed at Daryn’s side, contrasting the red material that created a cape too lush to be practical. She resisted the urge to touch the thick weave, testing its warmth as he stopped his horse next to her.
“Well, good evening,” Daryn said. “I had no idea we had a lady living on our lands.”
The tone wavered between mocking and envy, and Eslaveth ignored it. She dropped a small curtsy, then answered, “Good evening. I was just on my way to Breon’s workplace.”
He peered at the street beyond the ally as though just recalling, “Oh yes. The peasants’ dance is tonight. Your aunt and uncle released you from nightly duties at the inn?”
“They said I could go, yes.” Eslaveth swayed toward the entryway, wondering if her status as a lady allowed her to be on her way or if he would use her decision to stay at the inn as an excuse to punish her for walking away.
Sensing her intentions, Daryn pushed his horse in front of her path. “Tell me, Eslaveth. Have you seen or heard any questionable talk of late?”
She felt her face prick, wondering if someone had heard her and Breon’s whispers. It couldn’t be. She knew from overhearing Magar and Merra that their soft tones could not carry clearly enough to be heard in the clattering dining hall. She shook her head.
“Nothing unusual.” Should she call him ‘Sire’ or not? She wasn’t sure anymore, but she left the term dangling, reminding both of them that she was a lady and on equal grounds.
“I know things must be difficult for you,” Daryn said. “If the plotters’ violence escalates, you might find yourself caught with family on both sides of the fighting. Though it looks as though you’ve chosen to stay with the peasants. I’m very curious to know why.”
Was he implying that she was a plotter? Eslaveth frowned, wishing she had an answer sufficient to quiet him. Her reasons for choosing to stay or go were so complex and conflicting that she could hardly explain them to herself, much less anyone else.
“Elsaveth!” Breon called from behind her.
His voice was louder than she’d ever heard it, infused with familiarity usually reserved for couples. And when she glanced over her shoulder, he was smiling so widely that she instantly wondered if he was drunk. His hands touched her side, one arm wrapping around her lower back as Breon turned, nodding toward the boy on the horse. “Good evening, my lord.”
Daryn frowned, eyeing Breon’s gray shirt that coated with the soot he’d washed off his face. Eslaveth felt both the ripple of his muscles moving beneath a tremble she hopped Daryn missed.
“Eslaveth.” Daryn drew out the name like an indulgent grandfather. “Him? You can do better that that.” He shook his head, then turned the horse away from them. “He’ll be stirring up a cloud during the dance, but suit yourself.”
When the horse had turned the corner, both peasants sagged. Breon quickly dropped his arm, though Eslaveth nearly turned to hug him.
“Thank you,” she breathed.
“I heard your voice,” Breon said. “But my master wouldn’t let me leave until the work was done. I was cleaning out the fire pit.” He winced, reaching to brush the back of her dress. “I’m so sorry. I’ve spoiled your dress.”
“No, it’s fine,” Eslaveth said quickly. “It’ll come out.”
She turned back toward the main road, glancing at him. Despite the cold, traces of sweat created rivers through the soot that framed his hairline. Perhaps he’d be better off as a glassmaker after all.
“Are you finished now?” she asked. “Are you going tonight?”
“Yes,” he said. “That is… if you… are you meeting anyone?”
“No,” she answered, sparing him more stuttering. “I’ll go with you.”
His breath left and a smile drew it back it. “I have to wash up. You could come to the house with me — or I could meet you there if you’d rather not miss anything.”
“I’ll go with you,” she said.
Breon’s home was narrow, tucked into the space between the carpenter’s shop that his father had owned and the cobbler who’d shaken his head at the two barefooted boys living next door. Eslaveth peeked at Breon’s boots now, but they were strong and sturdy, perhaps the newest thing he owned. He kicked the base of the door opening, calling out, “Ma?”
“In the kitchen!” the woman called from behind the cloth that hung over the door in the back of the sitting room.
“Eslaveth’s here,” Breon answered, before speaking directly to her. “I’ll be back as quick as I can.”
And as he hurried up the rickety stairs, the woman whipped back the cheesecloth door, coming into the room with open arms.
“Eslaveth! How are you?” The thin arms embraced her, skin sagging against her shoulders.
“I’m very well,” Eslaveth answered.
The woman squeezed her hands, but only smiled and said, “I haven’t heard Breon bounce up those stairs since his father died. I didn’t know if he was going to the dance tonight or going to stay home with me.”
“Would you like to come?” Eslaveth asked.
“Oh, no,” the woman answered. “Dancing loses its luster after you’ve raised a few children. I intend to stay here and put my feet up.”
When Breon came back down, he wore his father’s shirt, which was slightly too large. His damp hair was no longer coated with ash, though she worried about leaving before it was dry. But he offered a clean hand and pulled her out the door.
She slipped her arm through his. Perhaps she shouldn’t encourage him – not when she second-guessed her choice to deny her father’s title, and not when she wasn’t as taken with him as he was with her – but if she could only choose to maintain one friend, it would be him. That counted for something, didn’t it?
The sun sank as the music grew louder, punctuated by the rhythmic clapping of the onlookers. The post of every shop held a torch lighting the colors of the dresses and shirts that added their flair to the festivities.
Eslaveth wondered if Breon had any energy left after a full day in front of an anvil, but they joined the back of the line, working their way into the jig. Neighbors took her hand, spinning, passing her from partner to partner. Wendelis winked in approval before he spun her back to Breon. The lively music, the laughter, the breathless frenzy of catching each hand offered felt so familiar, so safe, and so different than the stately dances at the palace. She lost herself in the music and movement, dancing until she was breathless.
A high shriek of Maglacia, the baker’s daughter, rose above the fiddle’s music. Eslaveth spun, glimpsing the red curls, but something black formed out of the darkness at the edge of the dancers, opening a black path that created most of the screams. Breon grabbed her waist, yanking her backward. They fell, he rolled on top of her, then underneath before a black hoof pounded against the cobblestone next to her head. Behind him, three other horses plowed through the masses, stepping on those who had fallen, knocking others aside.
Breon rolled out from beneath her, pushing to his feet to catch the reins of the lead horse and she glimpsed Daryn’s face just before another peasant jerked him from the saddle.
“No, stop!” Breon called, “Don’t hurt him!”
But one of the boys nearby cradled a girl who screamed, hunched over a twisted leg. When Daryn hit the cobblestone, he rushed over, slamming a fist into the young lord’s face. People swarmed the second horse, but his rider pulled a sword free, hacking the man who’d grabbed the reins.
A third boy brandished his blade, bellowing, “Don’t touch him! Everyone stand back!”
When that didn’t work, he began swinging the sword in wide arcs, making his way toward the fray that surrounded Daryn.
The solitary voice rang with enough authority that even the boys on the horses halted. Daryn dragged himself back into the saddle, panting as the crowd opened for his father.
Lord Yarboron’s breath made crystal puffs in the air as his breath escaped his nostrils. He eyed the pool of blood staining the road on one side, then one of the riders who lay dead on the other.
His eyes returned to Daryn. “Who did this?”
The boy with the sword sheathed it quickly. “The peasants were blocking the street, my lord.”
“They attacked us,” Daryn answered.
The man next to Eslaveth shouted so loudly that her ear rang. “They were trampling us! Look around, my lord! See how many they wounded!”
Wounds which would need tending if some of the peasants were to live. Their neighbors poised, leaning forward, waiting for permission to clean up the fray.
But Lord Yarboron pointed to the dead rider, demanding, “Who started this?”
“It was him!” Daryn pointed to Breon. “He grabbed my horse’s bridle to pull me to the ground.”
Breon swayed, as all eyes swung toward him. Eslaveth grabbed his hand, ready to step in front and demand whatever rights a lady had to defend him.
“Did you start this?” Lord Yarboron snapped.
“I — I only meant to stop the horse from trampling the people, my lord,” Breon sputtered. “I intended no harm for the rider.”
Lord Yarboron stared hard at him for a moment before swinging his hand in a circle, dismissing them. “All of you go home. Take your wounded with you. And you!” He turned back to the noble boys. “You bring Deleon to the house. This will not be spoken of, nor will it be repeated.”
The street writhed with movement as people aided their own. Girls ripped their petticoats to stanch the sword wounds. Young men sprinted off, returning with boards to lay the victims on, carrying them into the businesses nearby. The tavern was cleared of its mugs and turned into beds. When the torches were ripped from their places to give more light to the groups, the growing darkness left nothing to do except seek the warmth the buildings offered.
Breon stood staring at the blood the dead boy had left where he fell. Eslaveth touched his shoulder, asking, “Breon?”
He turned, pulling her close, dropping his face into her shoulder. “I thought I was going to lose you,” he whispered. “I thought I was going to die.”
So had she. She ran her hands up his back, pulling him closer like if she let go, the boys would return to drag him to trial for killing a nobleman’s son. She wasn’t sure someone wouldn’t pursue it, wasn’t sure there wouldn’t be repercussions – at least a beating as a warning. Her chest rose and fell harder as she wondered if she could write her uncle to intercede.
And then her lips were on Breon’s. She tasted salt and wasn’t sure if they were her tears or his. The rough skin on his palm brushed her cheek. Somewhere behind, she heard two neighbors pause just after they stepped from the door, but she didn’t look to see who it was. Their audience moved on silently, without the teasing that would normally accompany kissing in public. Eslaveth moved her arms around Breon’s neck and nothing else mattered.
There was no blood, no victims, no mothers and aunts wondering where they were, no noisy neighbors. Just stars, the air that chilled her back, and the kiss of the man she’d known her entire life.