On an ordinary day, I was only acknowledged if someone needed something from me. That day, I was a pariah. If I walked into a room where a maid was cleaning, she would simply walk out. Footmen remembered forgotten items, and had to double back if I met them in the hallway. I set my jaw and told myself that it didn’t matter, that these people didn’t matter. I had Shadow, and he was all I needed.
My first duty of the day was to change the rushes on the floors of the common areas and check the rat traps. Harriet found me as I hid carcasses in the pink silk bag Lady Denman required me to use. She was adamant that her guests never had reason to suspect what I transported to the bonfire.
“The Duchess of Wortham’s maid was injured last night. You will clean the duke and duchess’s room today until we can find a suitable replacement. While you are at it, you might as well clean all of the guest rooms.” Her voice held no trace of the kindness from hours earlier. Her eyes didn’t meet mine as she spoke, but rather focused on some point above my head.
“Immediately.” Without waiting for me to nod, or acknowledge her orders, she turned on her heel and walked out of the room.
In the days leading to the duke and duchess’s arrival, Sir and Lady Denman impressed upon us they should want for nothing. I moved as quickly as I could through the manor, stowing the bag of rats in a broom closet on my way, intending on taking it to the bonfire after the honored guests were attended to. The duke and duchess were coming out for breakfast when I approached their door. I curtsied low as they passed.
The duchess was an impressive woman, towering a head and a half over both me and her husband. Her grey-streaked dark hair was pinned back severely, making me wonder if her eyes weren’t supposed to be almond shaped as I peeked up at her through my lashes. She wore a dark red velvet gown, even though all of the other ladies I’d ever seen wore white or soft colors during the daylight hours.
“Are you going to be tending to our rooms in Isobel’s stead?” The huskiness in her voice complemented her imposing figure.
I nodded, almost not feeling the accompanying pull from my burning skin.
“Wonderful. I have a request for you, then.” The Duke of Wortham clapped his hands together. He did not look as I expected. His ascot was crooked, and I could only assume he fixed his broken garter himself, as I knew of no maid who would dare to do that poorly of a job for such an important man. His hair was tied back with a ribbon, but the stray hairs that stuck out from his head also told me he’d done it himself. He reminded me of the round little dolls Lady Denman had imported from Moor Island for Lady Anna’s birthday one year, like if you tipped him over, he’d just roll back to his feet.
“Would you be so kind as to replenish our store of sealing wax? We have been traveling for several weeks, and there is quite a bit of correspondence that we need to attend to.” He smiled at me and held out his hand, palm down. As I bent to kiss it, he laughed.
“No, child. Hold out your hand.”
My fingers shook as I obeyed. I squeezed my eyes shut, expecting a slap on the wrist. Instead, something heavy dropped into my palm. I looked at the object I now held. A gold mark. Shocked, I shook my head, ignoring the stiffness. A gold mark was more money than I earned in two years. It was certainly more than what a few chunks of wax cost, and it would be rude, on Sir and Lady Denman’s behalf, to accept money for something that should have been provided for such high status guests in the first place.
“It’s considered rude to try to give back a bribe, child.” The Duchess of Wortham’s voice was warm, despite her chastising words. She smiled. “Just ensure my husband has enough wax for the rest of our stay.”
I nodded and curtsied. It was a pleasant surprise to find that the duke and duchess were benevolent towards servants. I wished I could speak a few words to show them proper respect. I curtsied one more time as they thanked me and went on with their day. My mind was reeling. A whole gold mark might be enough to buy a small cottage outside of Northfield Barrens, the town that belonged to the Denman family. I could come and go as I pleased. I wouldn’t have to depend on Sir and Lady Denman for my lodging. I could have a bed.
I turned the coin in my hands, savoring the heavy weight of freedom. Or maybe I could move far away, where no one knew me, where I could start a new life, not as an orphan, but as a woman on her own. Maybe I could go adventuring, buy passage on a ship and sail around the world.
I had to fight the urge to run down the hill to hide away my fortune, but settled instead on slipping the coin into my boot, knowing that so long as I felt it rubbing against my heel, it would be safe.
I found Conrad, the official scribe, in the drawing room at the back of the manor. His thin shoulders were hunched over his work table. As always, I couldn’t help noticing how old he looked. I knew he was only a few years older than myself, but his black hair was already falling out, and what remained seemed to get greyer by the day. His skin stretched tightly over his cheekbones, looking like it would tear if he pressed on it too hard.
He didn’t answer when I tapped on the doorframe. Instead of being discouraged, I walked up to his table. When he still refused to acknowledge me, I picked up a letter and pointed to the place where the wax seal would go. He barely glanced up from his work.
“I don’t understand you. Shouldn’t you be cleaning something?”
I entertained the thought of pouring the contents of the inkwell over the lengthy document he was drafting. Instead, I tried again, pointing to the seal stamp, then to the letter. He sighed and dropped his quill.
“I am far too busy for your games today. Unless you can tell me what you want, go find someone else to plague.” He stood and went to a cabinet that held his writing supplies. Frustrated, I looked around for something else that would help him understand me.
Keeping one eye on Conrad, I lifted a sheaf of parchments that weren’t lying flat on his work table. Two bricks of wax lay underneath, black and red. A small chunk was carved out of the red, but more than enough remained for the duke to write to every noble in the kingdom twice over.
Not taking my eyes off Conrad, who was grumbling to himself over people who moved his belongings, I grabbed both blocks and slipped them into my apron. He had plenty more, he wouldn’t miss two blocks. I hoped. My heart battered my ribs as I fled the room as quickly as my sore back would allow.
I was at the end of the corridor when I heard Conrad’s raised voice. Panicking, I realized I was trapped. If I ran to my right, I’d go into the great hall, where most of the household was decorating for Yuletide. Not one of them would hesitate to grab me and hold me if they believed I was going to be punished. To my left was the kitchen, and I wasn’t sure if I had the stomach face Luella again.
Turning full circle, I saw the wardrobe. I’d never understood its purpose in the hallway. It was not near a door leading outside, so there was no point in storing outerwear in it, and everything that would be needed for the kitchen or the great hall were stored in either the kitchen or the great hall. It was large enough, however, to hide a person in the top cupboard.
I pulled the door open and climbed inside, hoping Conrad would go up the stairs across from his workroom rather than turn down the servants’ corridor. My breath caught in my throat as the hooks pressed into my back.
I tried not to make any sound as footsteps came closer. They stopped in front of the wardrobe. I squeezed my eyes shut as I waited for the inevitable. Something tapped the corner of the wardrobe.
“Oh, good morning, Luella.” Conrad’s voice was higher than it had been when he’d been speaking to me.
“Good morning… Conner.” I rolled my eyes. Luella knew perfectly well what his name was; they’d both been working for the Denman estate for several years.
“It’s Conrad…” His voice trailed off as a pair of lighter footsteps faded away. I would have felt sorry for him, if he weren’t chasing me to turn me in for thieving. I’d seen stronger men than him fall for Luella’s wiles. His ardor would just make him more dangerous. It was no secret that Luella hated me, so anyone enamored of her who could get me into trouble to win her favor did so.
Another door opened and shut. It was hard not to crack the wardrobe open a little to peek out. For all I knew, Conrad was still standing in front of the wardrobe, so I waited. My back burned from being twisted and strained in the tiny space as minutes ticked by.
I couldn’t take it anymore. I had to get out. Edging the door open, hair by hair, I looked down the corridor. Empty. I couldn’t see to the sides, but I decided to take the chance. Pushing the doors all the way open, I swung my legs around to get out. Sliding forward, I realized too late that my back was not going to straighten the way I was used to, and I tumbled down, landing on my elbows.
Sharp pain looped through my body several times before I could sit up. The hallway was empty. I climbed to my feet, using the wardrobe for support. My fingers slipped on fleur-de-lis carving that was third from the bottom, turning it upside down. I cringed as a clang as sharp and as loud as a hammer on an anvil echoed down the hall.
“What was that?” A voice on the other side of the door leading to the great hall sent me scrambling for a hiding place. When I went to climb back into the wardrobe, I was surprised to find that the bottom had dropped out of it. I couldn’t see how far down it went, but there was a ladder affixed to the side. I didn’t want to take the chance of trying to climb down, only to wind up with a broken neck in the basement. I closed the door, turned the fleur-de-lis upright, and pressed myself against the side. The only way someone coming from the great hall would be able to see me was if they walked out and around the wardrobe. Sweat dripped down my forehead and my nails dug deep into my palms.
I waited several moments. No one came out of either door, so I stepped forward, brushing out my skirts. Conrad surely had to be back in the drawing room, if he was as busy as he’d claimed to be. If that were so, I would be able to walk through the great hall without notice. Holding my head as high as I could, I pushed the door open and stepped into the flurry of activity inside.
Almost every servant in the manor filled the room, carrying boughs of gilded evergreens, pushing tables close to the wall, and outfitting the massive chandelier with the traditional violet and silver candles. Wreathes of candied fruit and nuts were being hung on the wall behind where the Denman family and the duke and duchess would sit during supper, one for each person, and an additional made entirely of candied cherries.
I’d just learned the year before that wreath was for Master Linton, the youngest child and only son of Sir and Lady Denman. He’d drowned in a pond near the woods many years before. I did not remember him, and I believed Sir and Lady Denman did not want to remember him. All images and evidence that he’d ever lived in the manor were thoroughly erased, save for his wreath, which they hung up every year.
“There you are! Stop right there!” Around me, people paused in their chores. Turning, I saw Conrad, red-faced and elbowing his way through the crowd. Panic flooded my head and I spun around, trying to make it to the stairs before anyone could grab me.
A large hand wrapped around my elbow, pulling me to a stop almost before I started to go.
“Where’re you going, Girl? You been told to stop.” I looked up at Colin, the newest servant at the Denman estate. He was at least a foot taller than me, and several times as wide. All of his bulk was muscle. Sir Denman hired him on as the butler, after some of the villagers started to come around, demanding payment for goods the estate purchased on credit. He was another of Luella’s paramours.
I tried to squirm out of his grip, but it only tightened.
“She’s a thief! She stole out of my supplies, right in front of me!” Conrad stalked up to me, his face twisted into a scowl. “Sir Denman needs to be notified immediately!” He grabbed at my apron.
“What was stolen?” All eyes in the room turned to the staircase. The Duchess of Wortham stood on the third stair, frowning.
All of the servants dropped into a bow or curtsey. Colin put his hand on my shoulder and forced me to bend forward. The accompanying pain pried a squeak out of my throat. It was drowned in Conrad’s high pitched voice.
“She stole wax from my drawing tables, your Grace.” He kept his head down, addressing the floor. Looking up at the duchess, I saw her frown deepen as she surveyed the servants in front of her.
“I am afraid that is my doing. My husband and I requested it of her earlier in the day. I understand from a conversation with Lady Anna that the young girl cannot speak, am I correct?”
“You are correct, your Grace.”
My back was burning, but Colin’s firm arm kept me prostrate. It wasn’t even the proper position I was supposed to be in. I looked at the other women, heads down and knees bent, with a stab of jealousy.
“Do you not keep the extra stores of wax for the estate within your drawing room?” The duchess’s left eyebrow rose.
“I- I do, your Grace.”
“Did she try to indicate what it was she was requesting of you?”
My mind swirled. I could not understand why the duchess, such an important woman, was taking the time to question Conrad. The outcome would still be the same for me; either extra chores or another whipping.
“I could not understand what she was trying to request, your Grace, and when my back was turned, she stole the blocks and ran. Your Grace.” A drop of sweat dripped off Conrad’s nose.
“How did she indicate what she needed?”
“I’m sorry, your Grace?”
“What did she do to try to tell you what she wanted?” The words echoed through the room like a whip-crack.
“She- she picked up a piece of parchment, and a seal-stamp.”
“From which, you could not understand she needed wax.” One of her hands curled into a fist then splayed. She repeated this two more times before she spoke again. “Perhaps I should write out my requests from this point on, so we do not have this misunderstanding again.”
Her attention turned to me. “Please stand straight, it’s vulgar for a woman to bow as a man.” I nearly groaned in relief as Colin removed his arm. I stood as tall as I could, though it took a moment for the pain to release my muscles. “Thank you. My husband wishes to do some correspondence after midday, please be sure the wax is on his desk by then.”
I nodded, feeling a little light-headed as I began to move toward the stairs. The duchess focused on Conrad and Colin.
“If a few bits of wax are that much of a hardship on the estate, perhaps I should inform Sir and Lady Denman that we will not be burdening them any further.”
“No!” Conrad’s voice burst out, amid a collective gasp from the other servants. “I mean, that is very kind of you to be thinking of the Denman fortune, but I assure you, your presence is not a burden upon the manor.”
I picked up my steps across the room until I reached the bottom of the stairs. I did not want to be present if the duchess chose to leave. As I passed her at the foot of the wide stair, she nodded to me, a small smile playing on her lips, before descending all the way into the room, no doubt to terrorize Conrad further.
I made a mental note to keep away from the drawing rooms for the next few days.
I remembered as I approached the duke and duchess’s room that the red block of wax was cut. Fishing it out of my pocket, I examined it. It was obviously used. I couldn’t very well give them scraps, not after the duchess had done for me. After the scene in the great hall, there was no way I could go back to Conrad, nor was there any chance I would get a knife out of the kitchen without Luella first plunging it into my back.
Which left the armory.
Turning on my heel, I headed back down the hall to the room where all of the weapons were kept. It wasn’t guarded, but it was locked. I remembered seeing one of the footmen putting a long piece of metal into the lock on the wine cellar once, and he managed to open it. There was a candle snuffer in the niche next to the door. Looking around to make sure no one was watching, I reached in and grabbed it. Untying the leather cord that held the bell onto the brass handle, I set both on the ground and pushed the brass rod into the keyhole. Nothing happened, so I wiggled it around a little. I heard a soft click, but the door didn’t budge.
“Oh, come on. Just open!” Frustrated, I shook the handle as hard as I could. This time I heard a louder click and the door swung open.
Giving a mental shout of victory, I slipped inside and shut the door behind me. I’d never actually been in the room before, and the variety of instruments meant for killing amazed me. Swords, bows, and sticks with both blunt ends and tipped with knives, lined three of the walls. The fourth held racks of shields, axes, maces, and many more weapons I couldn’t identify. A long table was positioned in the middle of the room, half covered in maps.
I searched the racks for a box that might contain daggers or pocket knives, but I found no small blades. Chewing my lip, I regarded the swords. All of them looked big and unwieldy, and they proved to be too heavy as I tried to lift one out of the brackets. I could move the handle, but I worried I might drop the blade and damage it, so I set it back down.
A burst of inspiration hit me as I found two empty leather pouches. Going back to the wall, I pulled the red block of wax out of my pocket. I put it on top of one of the swords that hung waist high and pushed down. The sharp blade easily cut through the wax. Smiling at my own cleverness, I cut both bricks into small squares, at what I guessed would be the right amount for one wax seal, and put the pieces into the pouches. The Duke of Wortham wouldn’t have to cut his own wax, and he wouldn’t realize that he didn’t have quite as much red as he did black.
Sweeping my apron over the blade I used to remove the smudges the wax left behind, I took a fast look around the room, to make sure I hadn’t disturbed anything else.
Thanking the winter gods for Yuletide and the chaos it wrought upon the household, I slipped out of the armory into the empty hallway. Realizing I’d left the pieces of the candle snuffer on the floor in front of the door, I had to double back. Stashing the useless pieces into my apron pocket, I picked up my steps to the guest wing.
I felt the gold coin rub in my boot as I put the pouches in the duke and duchess’s rooms. What if Conrad really hadn’t understood me? If I hadn’t been able to get a scribe, who works with words and descriptions, to understand me, how would I be able to handle being outside the grounds of the Denman estate? How could I even think about being able make it out on my own?