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RISE OF EMPIRE

The Empress

Amilia made the mistake of looking back into Edith Mon’s eyes. She had never meant to — she had never planned on raising her stare from the floor — but Edith startled her and she looked up without thinking. The head maid would consider her action defiance, a sign of rebellion in the ranks of the scullery. Amilia had never looked into Edith’s eyes before, and doing so now, she wondered if a soul lurked behind them. If so, it must be cowering or dead, rotting like a late-autumn apple; that would explain her smell. Edith had a sour scent, vaguely rancid, as if something had gone bad.

“This will be another tenent withheld from yer pay,” the rotund woman said. “Yer digging quite a hole, ain’t you?”

Edith was big and broad and missing any sign of a neck. Her huge anvil of a head sat squarely on her shoulders. By contrast, Amilia barely existed. Small and pear-shaped, with a plain face and long, lifeless hair, she was part of the crowd, one of the faces no one paused to consider — neither pretty nor grotesque enough to warrant a second glance. Unfortunately, her invisibility failed when it came to the palace’s head maid, Edith Mon.

“I didn’t break it.” Mistake number two, Amilia thought.

A meaty hand slapped Amilia’s face, ringing ears andwatering eyes. “Go on,” Edith enticed her with a sweet tone, and then whispered, “lie to me again.”

Gripping the washbasin to steady herself, Amilia felt heat blossom on her cheek. Her gaze now followed Edith’s hand, and when it rose again, Amilia flinched. With a snicker, Edith ran her plump fingers through Amilia’s hair.

“No tangles,” Edith observed. “I can see how ya spend yer time, instead of doing yer work. Ya hoping to catch the eye of the butcher? Maybe that saucy little man who delivers the wood? I saw ya talking to him. Know what they sees when hey looks at ya? They sees an ugly scullery maid is what. A wretched filthy guttersnipe who smells of lye and grease. They would rather pay for a whore than get ya for nothing. You’d be better off spending more time on yer tasks. If ya did, I wouldn’t have to beat ya so often.”

Amilia felt Edith winding her hair, twisting and tightening it around her fist. “It’s not like I enjoy hurting ya.” She pulled until Amilia winced. “But ya have to learn.” Edith continued pulling Amilia’s hair, forcing her head back until only the ceiling was visible. “Yer slow, stupid, and ugly. That’s why yer still in the scullery. I can’t make ya a laundry maid, much less a parlor or chambermaid. You’d embarrass me, understand?”

Amilia remained quiet.

“I said, do ya understand?”

“Yes.”

“Say yer sorry for chipping the plate.”

“I’m sorry for chipping the plate.”

“And yer sorry for lying about it?”

“Yes.”

Edith roughly patted Amilia’s burning cheek. “That’s a good girl. I’ll add the cost to yer tally. Now as for punishment . . .” She let go of Amilia’s hair and tore the scrub brush from her hand, measuring its weight. She usually used a belt; the brush would hurt more. Edith would drag her to the laundry, where the big cook could not see. The head cook had taken a liking to Amilia, and while Edith had every right to discipline her girls, Ibis would not stand for it in his kitchen. Amilia waited for a fat hand to grab her wrist, but instead Edith stroked her head. “Such long hair,” she said at length. “It’s yer hair that’s getting in the way, isn’t it? It’s making ya think too much of yerself. Well, I know just how to fix both problems. Yer gonna look real pretty when I —”

The kitchen fell silent. Cora, who had been incessantly plunging her butter churn, paused in mid-stroke. The cooks stopped chopping and even Nipper, who was stacking wood near the stoves, froze. Amilia followed their gaze to the stairs.

A noblewoman adorned in white velvet and satin glided down the steps and entered the steamy stench of the scullery. Piercing eyes and razor-thin lips stood out against a powdered face. The woman was tall and — unlike Amilia, who had a hunched posture — stood straight and proud. She moved immediately to the small table along the wall, where the baker was preparing bread.

“Clear this,” she ordered with a wave of her hand, speaking to no one in particular. The baker immediately scooped his utensils and dough into his apron and hurried away. “Scrub it clean,” the lady insisted.

Amilia felt the brush thrust back into her hand, and a push sent her stumbling forward. She did not look up and went right to work making large swirls of flour-soaked film. Nipper was beside her in an instant with a bucket, and Vella arrived with a towel. Together they cleared the mess while the woman watched with disdain.

“Two chairs,” the lady barked, and Nipper ran off to fetch them.

Uncertain what to do next, Amilia stood in place watching the lady, holding the dripping brush at her side. When the noblewoman caught her staring, Amilia quickly looked down and movement caught her eye. A small gray mouse froze beneath the baker’s table, trying to conceal itself in the shadows. Taking a chance, it snatched a morsel of bread and disappeared through a small crack.

“What a miserable creature,” she heard the lady say. Amilia thought she was referring to the mouse until she added, “You’re making a filthy puddle on the floor. Go away.”

Before retreating to her washbasin, Amilia attempted a pathetic curtsy. A flurry of orders erupted from the woman, each announced with perfect diction. Vella, Cora, and even Edith went about setting the table as if for a royal banquet. Vella draped a white tablecloth, and Edith started setting out silverware only to be shooed away as the woman carefully placed each piece herself. Soon the table was elegantly set for two, complete with multiple goblets and linen napkins.

Amilia could not imagine who could be dining there. No one would set a table for the servants, and why would a noble come to the kitchen to eat?

“Here now, what’s all this about?” Amilia heard the deep familiar voice of Ibis Thinly. The old sea cook was a large barrel-chested man with bright blue eyes and a thin beard that wreathed the line of his chin. He had spent the morning meeting with farmers, yet he still wore his ever-present apron. The grease-stained wrap was his uniform, his mark of office. He barged into the kitchen like a bear returning to his cave to find mischief afoot. When he spotted the lady, he stopped.

“I am Lady Constance,” the noblewoman informed him. “In a moment I will be bringing Empress Modina here. If you are the cook, then prepare food.” The lady paused a moment to study the table critically. She adjusted the positions of a few items, then turned and left.

“Leif, get a knife on that roasted lamb,” Ibis shouted. “Cora, fetch cheese. Vella, get bread. Nipper, straighten that woodpile!”

“The empress!” Cora exclaimed as she raced for the pantry.

“What’s she doing coming here?” Leif asked. There was anger in his voice, as if an unwelcome, no-account relative was dropping by and he was the inconvenienced lord of the manor.

Amilia had heard of the empress but had never seen her — not even from a distance. Few had. She had been coronated in a private ceremony over half a year earlier on Wintertide, and her arrival in Aquesta had changed everything.

King Ethelred no longer wore his crown, and was addressed as “Regent” instead of “Your Majesty.” He still ruled over the castle, only now it was referred to as the imperial palace. The other one, Regent Saldur, had made all the changes. Originally from Melengar, the former bishop had taken up residence and set builders working day and night on the great hall and throne room. Saldur had also declared new rules that all the servants had to follow.

The palace staff could no longer leave the grounds unless escorted by one of the new guards, and all outgoing letters were read and needed to be approved. The latter edict was hardly an issue, as few servants could write. The restriction on going outside the palace, however, was a hardship to almost everyone. Many with families in the city or surrounding farms chose to resign, because they could no longer return home each night. Those remaining at the castle never heard from them again. Regent Saldur had successfully isolated the palace from the outside world, but inside, rumors and gossip ran wild. Speculations flourished in out-of-the-way corridors that giving notice was as unhealthy as attempting to sneak away.

The fact that no one ever saw the empress ignited its own set of speculations. Everyone knew she was the heir of the original, legendary emperor, Novron, and therefore a child of the god Maribor. This had been proven when she had been the only one capable of slaying the beast that had slaughtered dozens of Elan’s greatest knights. That she had previously been a farm girl from a small village confirmed that in the eyes of Maribor, all were equal. Rumors concluded that she had ascended to the state of a spiritual being, and only the regents and her personal secretary ever stood in her divine presence.

That must be who the noblewoman is, Amilia thought. The lady with the sour face and perfect speech was the imperial secretary to the empress.

They soon had an array of the best food they could muster in a short time laid out on the table. Knob, the baker, and Leif, the butcher, disputed the placement of dishes, each wanting his wares in the center. “Cora,” Ibis said, “put your pretty cake of cheese in the middle.” This brought a smile and blush to the dairymaid’s face and scowls from Leif and Knob.

Being a scullion, Amilia had no more part to play and returned to her dishes. Edith was chatting excitedly in the corner near the stack of oak kegs with the tapster and the cupbearer, and all the servants were straightening their outfits and running fingers through their hair. Nipper was still sweeping when the lady returned. Once more everyone stopped and watched as she led a thin young girl by the wrist.

“Sit down,” Lady Constance ordered in her brisk tone.

Everyone peered past the two women, trying to catch the first glimpse of the god-queen. Two well-armored guards emerged and took up positions on either side of the table. But no one else appeared.

Where is the empress?

“Modina, I said sit down,” Lady Constance repeated.

Shock rippled through Amilia.

Modina? This waif of a child is the empress?

The girl did not appear to hear Lady Constance and stood limp with a blank expression. She looked to be a teenager, delicate and deathly thin. Once she might have been pretty, but what remained was an appalling sight. The girl’s face was white as bone, her skin thin and stretched, revealing the detailed outline of her skull beneath. Her ragged blonde hair fell across her face. She wore only a thin white smock, which added to the girl’s ghostly appearance.

Lady Constance sighed and forced the girl into one of the chairs at the baker’s table. Like a doll, the girl allowed herself to be moved. She said nothing and her eyes stared blankly.

“Place the napkin in your lap this way.” Lady Constance carefully opened and laid the linen with deliberate movements. She waited, glaring at the empress, who sat, oblivious. “As empress, you will never serve yourself,” Lady Constance went on. “You will wait as your servants fill your plate.” She was looking around with irritation when her eyes found Amilia. “You — come here,” she ordered. “Serve Her Eminence.”

Amilia dropped the brush in the basin and, wiping her hands on her smock, rushed forward. She lacked experience with serving but said nothing. Instead, she focused on recalling the times she had watched Leif cutting meat. Taking up the tongs and a knife, she tried her best to imitate him. Leif always made it look effortless, but Amilia’s fingers betrayed her and she fumbled miserably, managing to place only a few shredded bits of lamb on the girl’s plate.

“Bread.” Lady Constance snapped the word like a whip and Amilia sliced into the long twisted loaf, nearly cutting herself in the process.

“Now eat.”

For a brief moment, Amilia thought this was another order for her and reached out in response. She caught herself and stood motionless, uncertain if she was free to return to her dishes.

“Eat, I said.” The imperial secretary glared at the girl, who continued to stare blankly at the far wall. “Eat, damn you!” Lady Constance bellowed, and everyone in the kitchen, including Edith Mon and Ibis Thinly, jumped. She pounded the baker’s table with her fist, knocking over the stemware and bouncing the knives against the plates. “Eat!Lady Constance repeated, and slapped the girl across the face. Her skin-wrapped skull rocked with the blow and came to rest on its own. The girl did not wince. She merely continued her stare, this time at a new wall.

In a fit of rage, the imperial secretary rose, knocking over her chair. She took one of the pieces of meat and tried to force it into the girl’s mouth.

“What’s going on?”

Lady Constance froze at the sound of the voice. An old white-haired man descended the steps into the scullery. His elegant purple robe and black cape looked out of place in the hot, messy kitchen. Amilia recognized Regent Saldur immediately.

“What in the world . . .” Saldur began as he approached the table. He looked at the girl, then at the kitchen staff, and finally at Lady Constance, who at some point had dropped the meat. “What were you thinking . . . bringing her down here?”

“I — I thought if —”

Saldur held up his hand, silencing her, then slowly squeezed it into a fist. He clenched his jaw and drew a deep breath through his sharp nose. Once more he focused on the girl. “Look at her. You were supposed to educate and train her. She’s worse than ever!”

“I — I tried, but —”

“Shut up!” the regent snapped, still holding up his fist. No one in the kitchen moved. The only sounds were the faint crackle of the fire in the ovens and the bubbling of broth in a pot. “If this is the result of a professional, we may as well try an amateur. They couldn’t possibly do worse.” The regent pointed at Amilia. “You! Congratulations, you are now the imperial secretary to the empress.” Turning his attention back to Lady Constance, he said, “And as for you — your services are no longer required. Guards, remove her.”

Amilia saw Lady Constance falter. Her perfect posture evaporated as she cowered and stepped backward, nearly falling over the upended chair. “No! Please, no,” she cried as a palace guard gripped her arm and pulled her toward the back door. Another guard took her other arm. She grew frantic, pleading and struggling as they dragged her out.

Amilia stood frozen in place, holding the meat tongs and carving knife, trying to remember how to breathe. Once the pleas of Lady Constance faded, Regent Saldur turned to her, his face flushed red, his teeth revealed behind taunt lips. “Don’t fail me,” he told her, and returned up the stairs, his cape whirling behind him.

Amilia looked back at the girl, who continued to stare at the wall.

***

The mystery of why no one saw the empress was solved when a soldier escorted the girls to Modina’s room. Amilia expected to travel to the eastern keep, home of the regents’ offices and the royal residence. To her surprise, the guard remained on the service side and headed for a curved stair across from the laundry. Chambermaids used this stairwell to service rooms on the upper floors. But here, the soldier went down.

Amilia did not question the guard, her thoughts preoccupied with the sword that hung at his side. His dark eyes were embedded in a stone face, and the top of her head reached the bottom of his chin. Each of his hands was the size of two of hers. He was not one of the guards who had taken Lady Constance away, but Amilia knew he would not hesitate when her time came.

The air turned cool and damp as they descended into darkness cut only by three mounted lanterns. The last dripped wax from an unhinged faceplate. At the bottom of the stairs a wooden door stood open, which led to a tiny corridor with more doors on either side. In one room Amilia spotted several casks and a rack of bottles dressed in packs of straw. Large locks sealed two other doors, and a third door stood open, revealing a small stone room, empty except for a pile of straw and a wooden bucket. When they reached it, the soldier stood to one side, his back to the wall.

“I’m sorry . . .” Amilia began, confused. “I don’t understand. I thought we were going to the empress’s bedchamber.”

The guard nodded.

“Are you saying this is where Her Eminence sleeps?”

Again the soldier nodded.

As Amilia stared in shock, Modina wandered forward into the room and curled up on the pile of straw. The guard closed the heavy door and began fitting a large lock through the latch.

“Wait,” Amilia said, “you can’t leave her here. Can’t you see she’s sick?”

The guard snapped the lock in place.

Amilia stared at the oak door.

How is this possible? She’s the empress. She’s the daughter of a god and the high priestess of the church.

“You keep the empress in an old cellar?”

“It’s better than where she was,” the soldier told her. He had not spoken until then, and his voice was not what she expected. Soft, sympathetic, and not much louder than a whisper, his tone disarmed her.

“Where was she?”

“I’ve said too much already.”

“I can’t just leave her in there. She doesn’t even have a candle.”

“My orders are to keep her here.”

Amilia stared at him. She could not see his eyes. The visor of his helm and the way the shadows fell cast darkness on everything above his nose. “Fine,” she said at last, and walked out of the cellar.

She returned a moment later carrying the wax-laden lantern from the stairwell. “May I at least keep her company?”

“Are you sure?” He sounded surprised.

Amilia was not but nodded anyway. The guard opened the door.

The empress was lying huddled on the bed of straw, her eyes open, staring but not seeing. Amilia spotted a blanket wadded up in the corner. She set the lantern on the floor, shook out the wool covering, and draped it over the girl.

“They don’t treat you very well, do they?” she said, carefully brushing back the mass of hair that lay across Modina’s face. The strands felt as stiff and brittle as the straw that littered them. “How old are you?”

The empress did not answer, nor did she stir at Amilia’s touch. Lying on her side, the girl clutched her knees to her chest and pressed her cheek against the straw. She blinked occasionally and her chest rose and fell with each breath but nothing more.

“Something bad happened, didn’t it?” Amilia ran her fingers lightly over Modina’s bare arm. She could circle the girl’s wrist with her thumb and index finger with room to spare. “Look, I don’t know how long I’m going to be here. I don’t expect it’ll be too long. See, I’m not a noble lady. I’m just a girl who washes dishes. The regent says I’m supposed to educate and train you, but he made a mistake. I don’t know how to do any of that.” She petted Modina’s head and let her fingers run lightly over her hollow cheek, still blotchy where Lady Constance had struck her. “But I promise I won’t ever hurt you.”

Amilia sat for several minutes searching her mind for some way to reach the girl. “Can I tell you a secret? Now don’t laugh . . . but . . . I’m really quite afraid of the dark. I know it’s silly but I can’t help myself. I’ve always been that way. My brothers tease me about it all the time. If you could chat with me a bit, maybe it would help me. What do you say?”

There was still no reaction.

Amilia sighed. “Well, tomorrow I’ll bring some candles from my room. I’ve a whole bunch saved up. That will make things a bit nicer. You just try to rest now.”

Amilia had not been lying about her fear of the dark. But that night it had to stand in line behind a host of new fears as she struggled to find sleep huddled beside the empress.

***

The soldiers did not come for Amilia that night and she woke when breakfast was brought in — or rather was skipped across the floor on a wooden plate that spun to a stop in the middle of the room. On it were a fist-sized chunk of meat, a wedge of cheese, and thick-crusted bread. It looked wonderful and was similar to Amilia’s standard meals, courtesy of Ibis. Before coming to the palace, she had never eaten beef or venison, but now it was commonplace. Being friends with the head cook had other advantages as well. People didn’t want to offend the man who controlled their diet, so Amilia was generally well treated, except by Edith Mon. Amilia took a few bites and loudly voiced her appreciation. “This is sooooo good. Would you like some?”

The empress did not respond.

Amilia sighed. “No, I don’t suppose you would. What would you like? I can get you whatever you want.”

Amilia got to her feet, grabbed up the tray, and waited. Nothing. After a few minutes, she rapped on the door and the same guard opened it.

“Excuse me, but I have to see about getting a proper meal for Her Eminence.” The guard looked at the plate, confused, but stepped aside, leaving her to trot up the stairs.

The kitchen was still buzzing over the events of the previous night, but it stopped the moment Amilia entered the kitchen. “Sent ya back, did they?” Edith grinned. “Don’t worry, I done saved yer pile of pots. And I haven’t forgotten about that hair.”

“Hush up, Edith,” Ibis reprimanded with a scowl. Returning his attention to Amilia, he said, “Are you all right? Did they send you back?”

“I’m fine, thank you, Ibis, and no, I think I’m still the empress’s secretary — whatever that means.”

“Good for you, lassie,” Ibis told her. He turned to Edith and added, “And I’d watch what you say now. Looks like you’ll be washing that stack yourself.” Edith turned and stalked off with a humph.

“So, my dear, what does bring you here?”

“I came about this food you sent to the empress.”

Ibis looked wounded. “What’s wrong with it?”

“Nothing, it’s wonderful. I had some myself.”

“Then I don’t see —”

“Her Eminence is sick. She can’t eat this. When I didn’t feel well, my mother used to make me soup, a thin yellow broth that was easy to swallow. I was wondering, could you make something like that?”

“Sure,” Ibis told her. “Soup is easy. Someone shoulda told me she was feeling poorly. I know exactly what to make. I call it Seasick Soup. It’s the only thing the new lads kept down their first few days out. Leif, fetch me the big kettle.”

Amilia spent the rest of the morning making trips back and forth to Modina’s small cell. She removed all her possessions from the dormitory: a spare dress, some underclothing, a nightgown, a brush, and her treasured stash of nearly a dozen candles. From the linen supply, she brought pillows, sheets, and blankets. She even snuck a pitcher, some mild soap, and a basin from an unoccupied guest room. Each time she passed, the guard gave her a small smile and shook his head in amusement.

After removing the old straw and bringing in fresh bundles from the stable, she went to Ibis to check on the soup. “Well, the next batch will be better, when I have more time, but this should put some wind in her sails,” he said.

Amilia returned to the cell and, setting down the steaming pot of soup, helped the empress to sit up. She took the first sip to check the temperature, then lifted the spoon to Modina’s lips. Most of the broth dribbled down her chin and dripped onto the front of her smock.

“Okay, that was my fault. Next time I’ll remember to bring one of those napkins that lady was all excited about.” With her second spoonful, Amilia cupped her hand and caught most of the excess. “Aha!” she exclaimed. “I got some in. It’s good, isn’t it?” She tipped another spoonful and this time saw Modina swallow.

When the bowl was empty, Amilia guessed most of the soup was on the floor or soaked into Modina’s clothes, but she was certain at least some got in. “There now, that must be a little better, don’t you think? But I see I’ve made a terrible mess of you. How about we clean you up a bit, eh?” Amilia washed Modina and changed her into her own spare smock. The two girls were similar in height; however, Modina swam in the dress until Amilia fashioned a belt from a bit of twine.

Amilia continued to chatter while she made two makeshift beds with the straw and purloined blankets, pillows, and sheets. “I would have liked to bring us some mattresses but they were heavy. Besides, I didn’t want to risk too much attention. People were already giving me strange looks. I think these will do nicely, don’t you?” Modina continued her blank stare. When everything was in order, Amilia sat Modina on her newly sheeted bed in the glow of a handful of cheery candles and began gently brushing her hair.

“So, how does one get to be empress, anyway?” she asked. “They say you slew a monster that killed hundreds of knights. You know, you really don’t look like the monster-slaying type — no offense.” Amilia paused and tilted her head. “Still not interested in talking? That’s okay. You want to keep your past a secret. I understand. After all, we’ve only just met.

“So, let’s see . . . What can I tell you about myself? Well, I come from Tarin Vale. Do you know where that is? Probably not. It’s a tiny village between here and Colnora. Just a little town people sometimes pass through on their way to more exciting places. Nothing much happens in Tarin. My father makes carriages and he’s really good at it. Still, he doesn’t make much money.” She paused and studied the girl’s face to try to determine if she heard any of what Amilia was saying.

“What does your father do? I think I heard he was a farmer; is that right?”

Nothing.

“My da doesn’t make much money. My mother says it’s because he does too good of a job. He’s pretty proud of his work, so he takes a long time. It can take him a whole year to make a carriage. That makes it hard, because he only gets paid when it’s done. What with buying the supplies and all, we sometimes run out of money.

“My mother does spinning and my brother cuts wood, but it never seems like enough. That’s why I’m here, you see. I’m not a very good spinner but I can read and write.” One side of the girl’s head was now free of tangles and Amilia switched to the other.

“I can see you’re impressed. It hasn’t done me much good, though. Well, except I guess it did get me a foot in the door, as it were.

“Hmm, what’s that? You want to know where I learned to read and write? Oh well, thank you for asking. Devon taught me. He’s a monk that came to Tarin Vale a few years ago.” Her voice lowered conspiratorially. “I liked him a lot and he was cute and smart — very smart. He read books and told me about faraway places and things that happened long ago. Devon thought either my dad or the head of his order would try to split us up, so he taught me so we could write each other. Devon was right, of course. When my da found out, he said, ‘There’s no future with a monk.’ Devon was sent away and I cried for days.”

Amilia paused to clear a particularly nasty snarl. She tried her best to be gentle, but was sure it caused the girl pain, even if she did not show it. “That was a rough one,” she said. “For a minute I thought you might have a sparrow hiding in there.

“Anyway, when Da found out I could read and write, he was so proud. He bragged about me to everyone who came to the shop. One of his customers, Squire Jenkins Talbert, was impressed and said he could put in a good word for me here in Aquesta.

“Everyone was so excited when I was accepted. When I found out the job was just to wash dishes, I didn’t have the heart to tell my family, so I’ve not been home since. Now, of course, they won’t let me go.” Amilia sighed but then put on a bright smile. “But that’s okay, because now I’m here with you.”

There was a quiet knock and the guard stepped in. He took a minute to survey the changes in the cell and nodded his approval. His gaze shifted to Amilia and there was a distinct sadness in his eyes. “I’m sorry, miss, but Regent Saldur has ordered me to bring you to him.”

Amilia froze, then slowly put the brush down and with a trembling hand draped a blanket around the young girl’s shoulders. She rose, kissed Modina on the cheek, and in a quivering voice managed to whisper, “Goodbye.”