Eryn finished scrubbing the last block of flagstone and rose, wiping the beading sweat from her brow. She had been up since long before the sun had risen, diligently cleaning one of the more spacious guest rooms from top to bottom in preparation for the arrival of its soon to be tenants, the Lord and Lady Gorrute. The bathrooms sparkled, the beds were made warm and professionally, the fireplace had been emptied and washed, and the great square rug that occupied the center of the room had been cleaned, dried, and perfumed. She examined her work with a satisfied smirk and turned to leave.
Eryn had half reached for the handle when the door flew open, knocking the servant to the floor. Two rotund nobles pushed their way through the opening, spitting wildly with rage.
“Could you believe the nerve of that little upstart?” Lord Gorrute roared, ignoring the struggling servant as he bustled into the room.
“And they call her a Princess? I’ve heard better manners in swine!” Lady Gorrute barked, her voice an odd mixture of woman and beagle. She, too, entered sparing no thought for Eryn, who had just then pulled herself to her feet. “Yelling at all of us over breakfast? For some commoner? What has the Crown come to, I ask? You!”
A fat, sausage-like finger appeared in Eryn’s face.
“We require sustenance!” the noblewoman bellowed. “Get to the kitchen and bring us some food. And wine, if they have any!”
Eryn bowed, assuring the Baroness it would be done straight away.
“Well you had better hurry!” the noblewoman continued as Eryn stepped through the door. “I could well starve if you don’t!”
Eryn squeezed past the lady and closed the door, quickly making her way down the hall.
“Fat chance of that,” she mumbled, jogging to the nearest entrance to the hidden alcoves and vanishing from the hall. Down and down she wound, passing tired and frightened looking maids and servants as she went, only slowing her pace when she happened upon a familiar phrase muttered by one of the breakfast cooks. She hid around a corner and listened from the shadows.
“-the sleeping sickness, that’s what they’re calling it, miss Roran. Fourteen cases they know of!” The cook mumbled to a frightened looking woman with her hand on her heart. “I heard them over the council meeting. That Lady Malera says that it’s spreading through the air. She said everyone infected should be quarantined. Then she wants to have everyone in the castle report for weekly health checks!”
The woman gasped.
“My boys went down early yesterday and I thought nothing of it!” she moaned. “Out all morning playing with my oldest son Wendell. Slept straight through lunch and dinner last night and now…” there was a tiny sob that echoed oddly through the tunnel, “…they still haven’t woken up. What should I do? I can’t lose my boys…”
“Where are they now?” the cook asked sorrowfully, an edge of fear in his voice.
“In their room. Tom, if Wendell falls ill, too…”
Eryn hurried on, unable to stomach any more. She could feel the icy grip of terror slowly tightening in her chest. She had heard of Malera, thanks to her late night conversation with the Princess the night before, but had never imagined the sleeping sickness could be as serious as all this. Dawn had made it seem so casual, just a small thing that could easily be solved by the clever concentration of some medical genius. The whispered conversation, however, made it seem like Malera was no closer to finding a cure and had instead settled on restricting the plagues reach. With a shiver, Eryn decided no good could come of thinking on the matter now, and returned to her task at hand.
The kitchen was quiet aside from a few of the morning staff packing away the remains of the breakfast feast into the great ice chest set deep in the castle’s cellar. Eryn piled together a sizable platter of ham, eggs, bacon, and bread and made her way back up the many steps it would take to reach the Baron and Baroness.
* * *
“You call this breakfast? It’s cold, you half-wit!”
Eryn hastily ducked out of the way as the heavy platter flew through the air, narrowly missing her head.
“What does it take to get some decent service around here?” the Baron raged, stomach quivering with his every word. “I should report this and have you thrown from the castle!”
Eryn mumbled an apology and the round Baroness guffawed.
“ ‘Sorry’ ? Is that all you have to say?” she sneered, turning to fix Eryn with a loathing glare. “How many times must I say I am starving before one of you idiots gets my point? Do you lack our language? Or perhaps you are just a bit touched in the head!”
Eryn moved for the door and the obese nobleman blocked her way.
“And where do you think you’re going?” he growled, advancing on the terrified Eryn. “I think a proper lashing is in order, little missy! Gertrude, fetch me my belt.”
Eryn’s reaction was so quick, neither the Baron nor the Baroness had time to react. The servant bolted for the door, knocking the fat little man off balance and sending him tumbling on his side. Lady Gertrude rose and immediately began tugging the Baron upright, the sight of it much resembling two large tomatoes jostled by the wind. Eryn fled down the hall and quickly ducked into a servants’ alcove, refusing to brake until she was far enough away to be sure they would not be able to find her. She slumped against a wall and collapsed into tears.
“You okay, miss?”
A boy’s voice cut her sobs and she ceased her crying, looking around for the source of the sound.
“I heard you crying and thought you might be-hey, wait a minute! Don’t I know you?”
As her eyes focused through the tears she realized she most certainly did know him. The boy who had struck Dawn with a snowball to the face stood before her, his look of concern quickly shifting into one of relief.
“You!” Eryn gasped, quickly clawing her way to her feet. “You’re the boy from the village! The one with the snowball!”
“Well, you’re half right,” he replied, smiling devilishly. “I did hit the Princess with a snowball, but I’m not from the village. I’m a palace servant. The name is Wendell. You?”
“Eryn,” she retorted, drawing herself up to full height. “Eryn Bladis, daughter of the Knight Commander.”
Wendell gave a low whistle.
“Impressive. My mom is a kitchen maid. Dad’s a knight. Say, what are you doing hiding in a hole like this, miss Bladis? Ain’t you the Princess’ best friend or something?”
Eryn cringed at the mention of Dawn. It was true she was the Princess’ best and, up until recently, only friend, but it always rubbed her the wrong way when she was solely recognized from her interactions with royalty.
“Yeah,” she answered, her stung pride showing in her voice.
Wendell retreated backwards slightly, her tone not lost upon him.
“Sorry, didn’t mean to offend,” he muttered. “You need help? Someone picking on you or something? I could go rough ’em up a bit, if you like.”
Despite the fear and distaste swirling within her, Eryn laughed, slowly shaking her head and speaking.
“No, it’s nothing. I just messed up a bit, that’s all.”
“You? Mess up?” Wendell grinned. “Never.”
“You obviously haven’t heard about all my spectacular failures at keeping the Princess out of trouble,” Eryn sighed, the knot of tension that had formed within her loosening slightly.
“The way I see it, no one is keeping Her Highness out of anything she sets her mind to,” Wendell supplied wisely. “I think you just have the poor luck all us servants must endure.”
His final words echoed with sarcastic sadness and Eryn, who was growing more fond of Wendell than she thought wise, walked with him through the tightly spaced alcove and down into the servants’ quarters below.
Wendell and Eryn parted ways at his parents rooms and Eryn waved him a fond farewell. As she walked back toward her own chambers, the icy fear of all that she had endured and learned that morning tightened its grip once more. This was not made any easier when she rounded the corner before her rooms and found her stony faced mother waiting impatiently outside their door.