Eliot Winter was not precisely a task master. He could have improved the definition, if it needed to be harsher, more demanding, and more unforgiving.
I had lived in the palace an entire moon before I slept long enough to have dreams. One of his first of many “gifts” to his new slave assistant was a dictionary. I had to read a letter each day and copy unfamiliar words and create sentences with them. I slipped his name in a few choice places. When I reached the end at the start of my second moon, he told me to read them all again.
I had to begin with the very basics. As it turned out, I knew very little about the laws of Niare, even the apparently common-sense ones. For example, the punishment for murder was life in a work camp while the punishment for stealing was to pay triple the cost of the stolen goods back to the original owner. It was illegal to start a fire outside of one’s own properly, to be a mage and not declare yourself to a mage’s guild, to practice any trade without a guild certificate, to train in a trade without guild permission, to have less than two or more than five children before thirty, to marry before twenty years…
“You appear to be counting the number of laws you have broken.” The Captain’s interruption made me lose count.
“There’s just so many!” I looked up into his severe face. “Interesting laws that I did not know. Obviously.”
“You appear to have questions.”
“So many. Why is it illegal to start a fire anywhere? What about a polite, self-contained little blaze for making sap candy? You cannot make it inside, that would be a mess.”
“As opposed to burning down the neighbor’s house.”
“What about this one: everyone is required to have two children by thirty years. How can the king declare that?”
“For the good of the country, each citizen should replace themselves while they are young and healthy enough to do so.”
“So what was your punishment when you passed thirty?”
“I have been, recently, duly fined.”
Thirty is not so old.
I might have laughed, but his expression threatened revenge if I dared. “How can thieves pay back triple when they have nothing in the first place?”
“No thief is that helpless. If he can steal, he can work. For example, the king’s horse was stolen a year ago. Although the horse was recovered, the thief owes the king the equivalent of a year’s unpaid labor.” He was studying the papers on his desk and nothing in his manner suggested suspicion, but I felt queasy.
Listing your crimes was probably not the best choice.
My assignment had been to find laws that I had not known and to ask questions about them. “Am I getting paid? How much?”
“The oxygen you continue to breathe and the food that sustains you. Also your clothing and your room is included.” His tone implied that I should be grateful for the uniform that was worn and several sizes too large and the room that was stuffy and several sizes too small.
“Is that negotiable?” I looked darkly at the closet he had put me in.
“Certainly,” he caught my gaze, eyes sparkling. “You could return to the dungeons and complete your sentence. I believe the punishment is there.” He indicated my collection of laws with a glance. “Or you can ask about the next one.”
“It is an irresponsible burden on society.”
“As if society helps anyone.”
“Society must provide occupation for each individual. If there is too great a number of individuals, society will fail to do so, and those without occupation may turn to criminal activities.”
“Like early marriage?”
He coughed and picked up a new report. “That may be the least oft broken law in all Niare’s history.”
“Why is it a law? I mean, you can start and end an apprenticeship by sixteen.” I could not understand it. “You can join the military at fifteen.”
“Yes, and at twenty you can marry.”
“Why?” I tried to sound lightly curious and slightly confused. “Is not being a part of the military a greater responsibility? Is not fourteen a responsible age? By sixteen, I was considered an adult and could do almost anything. Even at fifteen years, no one questioned—my choices. My age.”
“Raising a family is a difficult responsibility, and a husband and wife bear it alone. In the military there are leaders everywhere, and every journeyman is under the Guild Masters.” He pulled out a pen. “Remind me how old you said you were.”
He was asking for a form to go in his records, but I still felt faint. “Twenty. That was my last question.”
A page came rushing in, though not without knocking. “Sir, you are required by the king!” he spoke without breathing, face red.
“Keep studying. You have to know the law to be the law.”
I flinched at the sound of the door shutting behind them. I felt like glass that had shattered but had not properly realized it yet, and thus failed to fall apart. I had been barely fifteen when Mother gave me away to marry the Count. Sold her own daughter, broken the law, and what for?
Who was protected by that same law.
For six phases of the moon, I drowned in books, papers, and research. I did not venture outside of Captain Winter’s apartment, which included his office, his bedroom, which I did not enter, a small private bath, which I enjoyed, and the closet that he turned into my bedroom. It was smaller than my prison cell had been, and had less light. It fit me, lying down on a mat, and one small half-desk with a miniature shelf on top of it. My dictionary looked like it might crush the fragile structure at any moment. It did smell better, though. And after a few phases, the captain gave me a small lamp. Perhaps that was when he decided I could be trusted with fire.
I even took all my meals in his office, sometimes with the captain. With the close convenience of a bath and the endless studying of his personal library, there had been no time or reason to leave. I felt safe in his office, as though nothing could hurt me. But it could not last forever.
Forever ended quickly, in the form of lunch not coming after breakfast had also failed to appear.
When I had first arrived in Saliz, I had spoken to enough soldiers and workers to learn the location of nearly everything in the palace—except, of course, anything truly secret. I had been trying to determine if there was any way to see the King without his Protector seeing me. There was not.
Knowing the layout was quite useful as I made my way to the palace kitchens using the servants’ hallways. The smells wafting out through the smaller kitchen’s door were heavenly. I peeked in to see only two people working. A woman was stirring some divine-smelling soup while a man told a story. I did not wish to interrupt, so I stepped away from the door and leaned against the cold stone wall.
“—and the Mad King screamed and raved with his dark magic, but the boy prince, our blessed king,’s magic was far too strong for him. Outside the battle between Mad Horatio’s evil minions and the prince’s army raged; in the throne room there was only the Madman’s curses as the two grappled, their broken swords cast aside and their magic drained. Outside, the fight grew desperate, but the young prince remained calm and focused—”
A master bard, his tale seemed almost to materialize before me. I watched the battle, Mad Horatio’s Defeat, as the bard’s words wound all around me. I worried the soup would burn. Who could remember to stir with such magic in the air?
"A hundred men had fallen on the throne room floor, a thousand still fought at the gates and in the courtyard. Only the prince remained standing, fighting with the last of his strength, his sword flashing silver through the pre-dawn air." The scene hung, suspended. Waiting.
“And then what? How did it end?” Her voice was light and pleasing—which explained, in part, why the king’s best bard was there.
But it shocked me. How could she interrupt magic?
“Well,” the bard chuckled, but it was the laugh of the someone who has just realized they are wasting their energy. “The madman thought so highly of himself—” The bard had stopped bothering to weave his words into magic, the spell was broken. The cook could not see it, and so there was no reason to bother.
He was still a good story teller, but without the magic to captivate me I recalled instead Father’s voice as he had told the same story.
“Today, a new age begins. Today the prince is crowned a king, and he will be a great one.” Father had a way of speaking that captivated, too, although there was no magic in it. “Today, the reign of terror is ended.”
At six and a half years, I looked up at him with shining eyes. He was my hero.
“How did he die?” My older brother half-whispered.
We all sat around a cake at a candle-lit table. Eldest sister Kivalya and brother Jaiden were both nine, though Kiva would soon turn ten. The hand on Mother’s belly said softly that little Teigan was on her way.
Father told us of the battle, of the cost of freedom from tyranny. Of King Horatio’s greed and overconfidence, of the prince’s cleverness. “Before the fight began, he knew that there was only one way the Horatio could be killed. No sword could best him, no magic could defeat him. But all was not lost. The prince had hidden a dagger in his mouth, and when King Horatio stopped just shy of his throat to gloat, leaning close to whisper his poison-filled words, the prince used the last of his magic to spit the dagger into the king’s own throat. The mad king had just enough time to whisper a curse before his life spilled out.”
I wondered, as we cheered and Father cut the cake and passed out the pieces, if we were celebrating the coronation of a new king, or Grandfather’s death.
When Father slipped out after dinner, I followed him into the barn to ask. He was saddling his horse, but when he saw me he stopped and knelt in the dirt at my feet. He embraced me tightly. Still clasping my shoulders, he leaned back to look me in the eye and said the words I will never forget, the last words I ever heard him say: “Set fire to the barn, Daughter. We are dying. We are poisoned.”
It was not until years later that I realized that the poison must have been in the sweets he had brought just for me—no one else had gotten sick—and that Father had knowingly given them to me and to himself. I could not really blame him for it, much. But he should have taken responsibility and stayed alive for the family, or at least to make sure it worked.
The barn caught fire silently enough, but it was a big barn, and the horses, which we had first pushed outside, all ran about in terror, loudly.
Mother and a neighbor carried us out.
Did she know, then? Had she wanted to leave me there? It would not have mattered. I have woken in ashes enough to know that fire was not on the list of ways I might die.
It took me a phase to heal, but only two days for Father to die. “You were so sick, but you pulled through!” they told me. “It was a miracle!”
Was that when she started hating me?
They never mentioned anything about the barn.
I watched the bard leave, humming and licking the leftover crumbs of something delectable off his lips. I entered quietly, but rapped on the door frame as I passed through it. It was never wise to startle a cook in the kitchen. Or anyone in the kitchen.
“You must be the captain’s assistant,” she filled a bowl with soup and passed it to me. Unprepared, I nearly dropped it. She clucked her tongue and shook her head disapprovingly. “You’re skin and bones! He lets you out, does he?”
I nodded as I blew on the soup, only half listening to her words.
“Oh, for sakes, child!” She touched the bowl and the soup dropped to the perfect temperature for eating. She had a cooking Talent!
But then, of course she did. She worked in the palace kitchens.
Hands on her hips, she was the picture of indignation. “’I’ll take care of her,’ he says. Gone 30 days, and this is the first she’s been seen. Hah! Let him see just how I’ll take care of him. The girl doesn’t even have proper clothes!” As she spoke she critically examined my improper clothes, checking the size and quality.
I was wearing the previous assistant’s uniform, three sizes too big and well-worn. She did not approve.
I finished the soup and she dished me another bowl, pre-cooled. “Mind the soup,” she shook her head at me, tsked, and left, looking determined. I almost wished to follow. She was a least a hand and a half shorter than the captain, but somehow more intimidating, like she could win a fight on willpower alone. Perhaps because she controlled the kitchen.
I minded the soup by pouring myself another bowl and blowing on it one spoonful at a time. To pass the time in between, I reviewed the usefulness of what I had learned.
My first real task as the captain’s assistant was to research the disputes and the history of guild law and make a proposal of how, if at all, it should be changed. The guild system had been in place since long before Mad Horatio’s reign even began, but recent disputes were causing the king and his advisers to question it.
Or the Captain was making up tasks.
Organized schools existed in big cities, and even in some small cities in the south. At eight years children could become students of a particular craft, and at ten they could be chosen by specific craftsmen, a polite form of slavery, and whenever those craftsmen chose they would become apprentices. Any master craftsman, or a journeyman of at least five years, could take apprentices.
I had been a student for nearly a year before Master Thorne agreed to teach me as his apprentice, at nine years. He had always disparaged me as unlucky and unlikely to succeed, but by law he should not have started until I was at least ten years.
After five years, an apprentice could submit their work to the guild and apply for status as a journeyman. After another five years, a journeyman could try to become a master craftsman. More than just a title, it gave a guarantee of quality, backed by the guild, and work provided by the guild. Masterwork was worth more, and they always had the best clients, the best materials, and the support of their guild. They could also take multiple students and apprentices to do all their busywork, including cooking and cleaning.
Or that was just Master Thorne’s method.
Most masters were journeyman for twenty or more years before they were approved as masters, if ever. The only known exception was Master Thorne, a woodcrafter, who had become a Master at only twenty-one years.
I had not known that, as his student. I had been eight when my mother sent me to him, and he had been renowned in the twenty nearest villages and Essel only for being a cantankerous old grouch. At extremely-old-beyond-measure, he did not accept students. But he needed a slave to mind, well, everything.
For five moons he disregarded me except to yell occasionally.
One day he caught me whittling a bit of wood into a small tree. He watched me awhile before announcing that I could learn after all. Then he took the knife away and strictly forbade me from using it. He spent four moons teaching me the history of wood-crafting methods and the Woodcrafting Guild, and about different types of wood.
Perhaps it was boring, but I was enraptured. It was the first time since Father had taught me letters and numbers that anyone had taken an interest in me.
He spent an additional moon drilling me on safety and then finally gave me an apprentice kit of tools. It was the first gift I had gotten since Father’s death.
But Thorne had never shown any interest in submitting my work to a guild or officially registering me as his student. He was always telling me that I was not patient enough, not calm enough, not steady enough for woodworking. Every time one of my creations crumpled to dust on the workroom floor, he was ready with a speech about why I didn’t even deserve to be a student.
Once, when several moons had passed without incident and I had made a genuinely beautiful carved wolf, he said that being a guild member did not suit me. “The guild would suffocate you. It’s all about order and rules and following certain procedures. You are disorder and chaos and creating your own little world. You would destroy them, and they you.”
If an apprenticeship did not count before age ten and it had to last at least five years, then it was not only a lack of being impressed that prevented Master Thorne from making me journeyman. If not for that, Master Thorne could have sent word to the guild for my approval before my birthday. With a journeyman’s seal and tools, I could have left home before the Count came. I could have headed south and bought my freedom honestly.
According to the Captain’s books, no guild would accept a journeyman an hour under fifteen or with an apprenticeship a day less than five years, and even that was uncommon. And even then, a journeyman could not own a shop until eighteen years. But a registered journeyman could enter almost any guild and request work and receive a living wage.
Not that it would have mattered. For my fifteenth birthday, Master Thorne gave up on me and sent me home.
“Just look and tell me what you see. And if you don’t see skin and bones, you must be blind. I can see clear through the child!” The cook’s tone was that of a concerned mother. She did not mean anything in saying child.
I did not flinch, but it was close. After learning about all the aspects of life that were unavailable to a girl of sixteen years, I was feeling sensitive about my age.
I turned from the soup and my wandering thoughts. Eliot Winter was standing in the doorway looking harried. The cook was harrying him. He said something I did not hear which earned him a spoon-thwacking, likely not the first from the look of his hair, and another verbal tirade.
“Captain! I do not care how important your work is.” She made him sound like a petulant child. “Your assistant needs proper care. She needs food and clothes and fresh air. For shame!” When she was not hitting him with the spoon—which should have been slick with soup broth, but was not—she was waving it around to emphasize her point, aiming it at him, at me, at the sky..
He kept trying to fix his hair and straighten his suit only to have her poking and prodding everything out of place.
Don’t laugh. Don’t you dare laugh.
Only after he promised, on threat of buying and cooking his own meals for the rest of his life, that he would take better care of me, did she permit him to leave. More accurately, she sent him away. Then she set the spoon aside and aimed her ladle at me, between spooning more soup into my bowl. “Take better care of yourself!” she chided me. “You cannot expect anything from the Captain. He forgets to live, and don’t you go following his lead.” She shook her head. “And here was I hoping you’d bring sense into his life, life even. What a life.” She stopped to look appalled just thinking about the Captain’s life. Then she smiled at me. “So, tell me about yourself. Where are you from?”
I had to wonder, did she usually send up his meals? Had she deliberately withheld today’s to lure me out? Since we usually received double portions through a runner, she would have known that I existed.
I could not finish another bowl of soup, though. I had eaten three in the time it took her to find Captain Winter and yell at him.
She shook her head and muttered, but did not force it. Instead, she made me repeat after her: “I will go directly to the palace seamstress and be measured for both my uniform and regular clothing, and then to the cobbler to get new shoes, and then outside where I will stay the rest of the day.” Then she shooed me from her kitchen, much as she had shooed Captain Eliot Winter.