“Milady, it’s time to wake.” The short, squat woman swept into the room, a no-nonsense expression on her face.
La’tiera sat up slowly and stretched. “Good morning, Mela.”
Sour as ever, Mela brought over a tray containing La’tiera’s breakfast to a small table with gracefully carved legs and matching chair. La’tiera was well used to the maid’s dampened disposition-Mela had been with her for as long as she could remember. Aside from her uncle, the older woman was the only other person she was allowed to interact with. The danger of her existence becoming known didn’t leave much room to meet others. For all she knew, everyone outside was like Mela, though she actually hoped they were closer to being like her uncle.
“I think it’s going to be a wonderful day today, don’t you?”
Every moment that passed meant the evening would be here that much sooner.
Mela nodded absently. “I’ll prepare your bath while you eat.”
She closed the open window, a slight frown to find it so on her face.
“Thank you, Mela.” La’tiera scampered over to the table and ate her breakfast with unusual relish. Yes, it would be an exceptional day.
Seeing her room washed with the rays of a new dawn, it was much easier to dismiss the horrid visions from the night before. The wood paneling on her walls broke up the austerity of the stone walls, their coloring enhancing the light coming into the room, the grain filled with sparkles, which she’d been told were only found in this rarest breed of
tree. The matching armoire, table, chairs and bed frame, all shaped with curves, no harsh angles, made to encompass her femininity-or so she was told. How furnishings could be used to represent such things she wasn’t at all sure, not having seen enough of what there was to make comparisons.
By the time Mela returned, La’tiera had finished her meal. As the woman cleaned up after her, she slipped on her slippers, knowing how much the older woman worried about her walking barefoot on cold floors. Mela would be very disapproving of her little foray without them last night.
The room beyond the tall archway was almost as spacious as her sleeping chamber. Marble columns bordered the circular room, protectively sheltering a sunken pool. Wisps of steam rose from the water, carrying with them the scents of flowers and aromatic oils. Water lilies floated like fallen leaves on the surface, as well as petals from a dozen other flowers.
La’tiera didn’t entirely understand how the water was heated, other than it began outside in an oven, its heat sucked under the flooring to warm the stones and then the water. It was one of the many marvels her uncle had encountered and brought home from his travels years and years before.
Mela helped her pin her considerable tresses out of the way before La’tiera slipped into the water, nude except for her necklace, her one constant companion. Leaning back into the luxurious warmth, she stared up at the mosaic tile work in the high ceiling. It was a giant representation of the Herald’s arrival. Nestled in a sea of darkness, his head floated above her, with a thrusting chin and eyes that glittered with purpose. His hair streamed out behind him in a long fiery trail. His purpose was to remind everyone the time for the Testing was close at hand.
Every four hundred and fifty years the Eye would appear on a newborn child. Nineteen years later, the Herald would be sent by the Gods to warn that it was time. Then, on the day of his closest passing, on a night with a full moon…
“Milady, you don’t want to prune. It’s not good for your skin.”
La’tiera sat up, pulling her gaze from the Herald. Mela stood at the pool’s edge, a clean robe open for her to step into. Glancing one last time at the Herald, she rose to her feet. Soon he would be in his full glory, soon the time of the Trial would be at hand.
Mela wrapped her in the thick robe and steered her to a nearby cushioned table. Efficiently, La’tiera was dried off and then oils and luscious lotions were applied to her skin.
“Yes, milady?” The woman had her turn to her side, briskly massaging her skin as she moved.
“Will you be going to see the entertainment tonight?”
Mela didn’t hesitate. “No, milady. It’s a total waste of time.”
La’tiera didn’t know why she asked. The answer was always the same. But strangely, the woman’s obvious disgust at the prospect only helped heighten her own excitement.
Once her skin was cared for, they returned to her bedroom.
“Any particular dress today, milady?” Mela headed toward several armoires that stood against the wall near the door as La’tiera made herself comfortable before the room’s bronze-mirrored dressing table.
“The blue one, I think, the one with the half-sleeves. I’m in the mood to paint today.”
“As you wish.” Mela opened the doors of the armoire in the center.
La’tiera released her captured hair and watched it cascade down over her shoulders. She started brushing it with a large silver-handled brush but handed the task over to Mela once she had placed the chosen dress on the bed. She watched in the mirror as Mela worked on her hair with strong, meticulous strokes.
“Will you miss me once I’m gone?”
The squat woman never looked up. “Of course, milady.”
Sometimes La’tiera wasn’t so sure. It gave her a strange feeling inside. But it didn’t matter, did it? Not in the end. She would have served her purpose, risen to her destiny. She would be with the Gods, with Yrr, Ath, Hurr and Ryh and then it wouldn’t matter whether her maid missed her or not.
Once Mela finished with her hair, she helped La’tiera dress.
“Where do you wish to paint, milady?”
La’tiera slipped a couple of clips matching the color of her dress into her hair as she took her time pondering the question.
“In the garden, please.” With tonight to look forward to, she doubted she could stand being cooped inside.
“As you wish.”
Mela led the way down the main hall of La’tiera’s wing, given generously by the viscount for her use and protection. Stopping only long enough to pick up the paints and canvas, Mela stuck close to her as they descended the side stairs to the private garden. She opened the barred gate midway between the second story and the ground floor with a key hidden in her bodice.
The garden was tended only when La’tiera slept, and was empty except for the two of them. Almost as large as the wing of the house itself, it was hers alone. Paths meandered through the space, tall trees, bushes, and flowers filling it with color and pleasant scents. Partially overgrown with ivy, a wall taller than a man demarcated the boundary. Some distance beyond it rose the higher walls guarding the manor.
Mela placed La’tiera’s things on a marble bench close to the small fountain near the garden’s entrance. With practiced ease, La’tiera set up her stand and prepared her
“Will there be anything else, milady?”
“No, I guess that’s all. Thank you, Mela.”
The sour woman nodded once then took her leave. La’tiera turned her attention to the blank canvas. She picked up her brush, still staring at the virgin cloth. After a moment, she dipped the brush in the vibrant colors and spread them over the canvas to bring out something only she could see.
Painting was the one thing she felt she would truly miss once the Herald arrived and her time came. It was her only true means of expression, of escape. It was also a way for her to leave something behind of herself, some enduring feature those few who knew her could remember her by.
Her strokes slowed as she glanced up and saw the same view that had greeted her for almost nineteen years-the tall weeping willow with its streaming limbs of leaves; the yellowberry bush, whose fruits grew golden in the summer heat; the roses, the morning glories, the magnolias. And beyond them, always beyond them, the containing wall and, farther still, the ramparts.
Proud of her mission, her purpose, ready to do what was required, she possessed but one regret-that this garden would be as much of the world as she’d ever get to see. Still, it was the price she had to pay for the important role given her. And she would do everything in her power to do it right. It was too risky to allow her to see the world. There was too much of a chance someone would figure out who she truly was.
La’tiera turned her attention back to the partially finished canvas. For another half-hour she added details to the landscape she imagined lay beyond the wall before finally setting her brush down.
She studied her efforts with dissatisfaction. She was too distracted by too many things to do her art true justice today. She gathered her utensils together, knowing Mela would pick them up later and take care of them for her. Though she would have done it herself, there were a number of things, that being one, which Mela just didn’t allow.
It was still too early for lunch, so she decided to take a stroll. Her steps rang softly on the cobbled path, assorted scents rising to wrap about her. If she pretended not to see the ramparts, she could almost believe she was somewhere else, somewhere out there. Possibly going to a clandestine meeting with her parents, so she could say goodbye before the time came.
Her parents-a father and a mother. Might there be siblings as well? A sister or a brother-perhaps both, if not more. The viscount, who wasn’t truly her uncle, had told her her parents brought her to him for protection once they realized who she was. She had often imagined their pain at parting, at the bravery and sacrifice it took them to give up their daughter for the benefit of the country and the world.
For with the many dangers abroad, only someone with the viscount’s influence could protect the Bearer of the Eye. By cutting all ties to her, they also kept others from using them against her-from those insane enough to try to keep her from what must be done. She would be like them, giving all she had to fulfill her destiny, as she was meant to.
She stepped back, startled from her thoughts as something dark abruptly moved at the bottom of a nearby wisteria. She was soon more astounded as she glanced toward it, thinking to spy a squirrel or chipmunk-or less appealing, a rat-when she realized the creature sitting up and rubbing sleepily at its eyes was, in fact, a child.
“You…You shouldn’t be here.” La’tiera blinked twice, doubting her own eyes as her hand reflexively rose to cover the necklace sitting over her chest.
A big yawn greeted her statement, then curious green eyes met her own. The child’s round face was dirty, a crop of long, unruly red hair framing most of it, homespun clothes looking to have seen better days. Yet for all that, the child looked healthy, her eyes bright.
La’tiera nervously glanced around, wondering if there might be more than just this child in her garden.
“My name’s Aya.” The girl sprang to her feet and pointed at herself as she spoke. “What’s your name?”
La’tiera stood very still, saying nothing. Where did this girl come from? What was she doing here?
Aya frowned up at her. “Don’t you have a name? Everybody has a name.”
“Ah, yes, I have a name.” Would it be safe to say it? She’d never realized children would be so small. She’d only seen them from far away and never very clearly. “La’tiera-my name is La’tiera. But what are you doing here?”
Aya gave her a gap-toothed smile. “Napping, playing, looking. This place is nice.”
She was standing here talking to a stranger, a child. Was this a gift from the Gods perhaps, allowing her to see a little of the outside through this child? Or should she assume she was in
danger? Yet children were always innocent in the stories.
“I’m glad you like it…Aya, was it?”
The girl nodded emphatically.
“But where did you come from?”
Aya pointed to indicate the other side of the wall.
It was La’tiera’s turn to frown. Was her question not clear?
“I realize you’re from beyond the wall, but where?”
If she were smart, she should be rushing to get inside instead of taking the chance of talking to this girl. It would be what Mela and her uncle would prefer, she was sure. Yet she found she couldn’t just leave. She couldn’t take the risk this was a gift and that she’d be throwing it away out of fear.
Aya shrugged. “I’m from all over. We travel lots.”
“We?” La’tiera felt a twinge of uncertainty shoot through her. She glanced about her again.
“Uh-huh. Me and Lalu and Tersa and Dal and Kyr and Rostocha and…”
“All right, all right.” La’tiera’s head was spinning from the cascade of names-so many strangers. “Who are all of you?”
Aya’s chest swelled with pride. “Why, the Great Rostocha Troupe, of course!”
“The Rostocha Troupe?”
“Uh-huh. We dance, we sing, we do tricks!” The girl did a handstand then flipped back to her feet. “See?”
“Oh.” Everything now clicked into place. “You’re with the entertainers who are playing tonight.”
“Uh-huh.” Aya gave her a satisfied grin. “We’re good, too.”
La’tiera wasn’t too sure, wondering if the rest were as untidy as this child.
“What’s that?” Aya pointed straight at La’tiera’s chest.
She felt a bolt of fear then realized the girl was only asking about the necklace, not what was hidden underneath.
“It’s the viscount’s crest. This was a present from him.”
Aya stared at the yellow-and-green squares embossed with a figure of a large lizard. “Looks a little scary.”
La’tiera silently agreed, it being yet another reason why she didn’t like wearing it. “Aya, you should go back now. No one is supposed to come into this garden from outside. You could get into trouble.”
The girl stared at her. “You’re here.”
“That’s true, but I’m not from outside.” She doubted she could talk Mela out of turning the girl in if she caught her.
Aya crossed her arms and pouted. “That doesn’t sound fair. I like pretty flowers and trees.”
“I understand that, but I’m serious. No one is supposed to come here. No one is supposed to see me.” She realized too late she’d said too much.
The girl’s eyes lit with curiosity. “No one can see you?”
Frantically trying to come up with something to explain the strange statement, La’tiera fiddled nervously with her necklace. “Aya, it’s not really-“
La’tiera felt her stomach flip at the sound of Mela’s voice. No, not now, the girl was still here. She spun around, thankful for the path’s curves and the trees.
“Coming!” She glanced over her shoulder at Aya, hoping Mela wouldn’t continue looking for her. “Please, stay out of sight for a few moments. As soon as Mela and I are gone you have to go back.”
Without waiting to see if she understood, La’tiera followed the path back toward the fountain. Mela wasn’t known for her patience.
“There you are, milady.” Mela had already appropriated her paints and other accoutrements. “Your lunch is waiting. It’s not healthy to eat it after it’s gotten cold.”
“You hurry on inside, then. I’ll join you as soon as I take care of your things.”
La’tiera nodded and went on in, forcing herself not to glance back toward where she’d left Aya.
Taking the stairs up to her wing, she moved down the hallway to her small dining room. From what she understood, her wing was almost a house onto itself. She had her own dining room, sitting room, library, bedroom and bathing room. The only thing not available was a kitchen, her food brought to her by Mela from another part of the manor. She’d always thought it would be interesting to see how her meals were actually prepared.
The viscount’s study lay within La’tiera’s wing, and she was not unhappy at sharing the space. A large gate cut off the hall from there, her uncle’s room on another wing past it and the grand stairs leading down. These were guarded halfway down where there was another large gate. Having snuck there on occasion, she’d heard the guards talking with one another but had never actually seen them.
Very rarely was she allowed past the hall gate, for as Mela never tired of reminding her, it was best for all concerned not to take chances and let her be seen.
She entered the dining room, lightly running her fingers over the dark-colored wood-paneled wall. The table was rectangular and elegantly carved. Two large cushioned chairs sat at either end. Unlike in the evenings, covered dishes were set out for her. Once Mela arrived, she would stand behind her and serve her more drink or food, making sure she ate but never joining her.
In the evenings would she have an eating companion. Her uncle would spend time with her, and she would ask him about his day and hear of things and people she would never see or meet. She eagerly looked forward to them, her only glimpse of matters on the outside.
La’tiera sat down in the comfortable chair, thinking about her unexpected encounter. How open the girl was-trusting and brave. She hoped she would see her again during the performance tonight. She amused herself wondering if she would see the dirty, scraped-up child of this morning or if she would be transformed into a clean little princess from a quaint tale.
She hoped the girl had had the sense to listen to her and leave the garden. She’d never heard of anyone having come into the garden or her rooms without permission, so she had no idea what her uncle would do to such a person. She’d never actually considered it before. She knew from her uncle’s talks that punishments varied from fines to being put to death, depending on the crime. But what would he do to someone like Aya if she were caught?
Not really sure she wanted to know; La’tiera uncovered the soup and quiche Mela had brought up for her lunch.
At times, it felt like she lived in some remote place, one where no one could ever find her no matter how hard they looked. Yet not really all that far away there were those who worked in the house, those who took care of her uncle’s business and, beyond, a city full of hundreds, if not thousands, of people. All unaware of her existence.
She looked up, startled, never having noticed Mela come in.
“Ah, yes, thank you.” She watched the older woman refill her cup, envying her a little. Mela might have to work and toil to keep La’tiera healthy and out of harm’s way, but she could also cross the barriers. She knew and mingled with those elsewhere in the manor, those beyond the manor walls. She had experienced a myriad of things La’tiera never would.
Still, for once, she knew something Mela held no inkling about. She’d met someone from the outside-face to face. And though it was highly unlikely, she found herself selfishly hoping she might meet Aya again.