A MAGPIE MIND
“Chase them away, Dumia. Diseased wretches.”
“Not now,” whispers the girl to the birds, sadness leaking from her eyes. She flaps her apron at them, pleads silently with them to go away. She’s more afraid of the midwife than she is of what might happen if the birds aren’t allowed to stay.
“Bloody bad luck,” says the midwife. “Stay there and keep watch.”
“Yes, Cendrine,” Dumia says.
“What was that, Magger?”
Dumia is summoned a week later. A tall man dressed all in black, a finely embroidered fox marching proudly across his chest, waits for her at the entrance to the servants’ quarter, where he tells her that his master wishes to speak with her. This has already been cleared with her master, he assures her. Who is his master? she wonders. He seems rather disinclined to talk, so she doesn’t ask.
Bemused, she follows him through the castle courtyards and out the western gate. His master is wealthy, assuming that their destination is somewhere to be found in this grid of broad, sunny boulevards and majestic manses.
It is, but she doesn’t get the chance to admire its gleaming white exterior, the colossal stone arches leading to the glossy mahogany entrance. Instead, the man leads her through a side gate so well hidden amidst the meticulously pruned sweetshrub that she might have missed it entirely without his guidance.
She and her escort are met at the servants’ entrance by a man nearly seven feet tall and bearing a sword larger than she’s ever seen before or ever cares to see again. It could kill someone just by falling over, like as not. Who would need this kind of protection?
Two women wait just inside the door. Cendrine is one; she stands fiddling with the hem of her apron, staring at the floor. Dumia doesn’t recognize the other, but she’s preening, clearly far more comfortable in her surroundings than Cendrine.
“Do you know what this is about?” Cendrine asks as the three of them follow the enormous guard through a maze of heavily paneled halls.
“Haven’t any idea,” says the woman she doesn’t know. “But the boys are doing well, aren’t they? The babes?”
Cendrine nods stiffly. It’s clear that she knows this woman, even if Dumia doesn’t.
“Well then,” the woman continues, “he likely just wants to thank us. Maybe there’s a reward in it.”
“We’ve already been paid.” Cendrine grumbles this so softly that Dumia nearly misses it. What had begun upon receiving the summons as a niggling spot of dread has grown into a quivering mass of fear; this summons is unlikely to mean anything good.
It’s a feeling that isn’t improved by the master of the house forcing them to wait for three hours outside of his study, giving her plenty of time to dwell on it. He’s called Lord Kearn, she learns from the other women. He’s a very powerful man, but what he has to do with any of the three of them Dumia can’t understand, and no one will tell her.
When he finally calls them in, she’s about ready to jump out of her skin, and she nearly does so as his voice breaks the silence of the antechamber, echoing beneath the cavernous ceiling.
“Ladies,” he says without a hint of irony. There’s something strange about the way he sounds, breathy and grating at the same time, but it goes with his gaunt face.
He has only one eye, so dark it’s impossible to say where iris ends and pupil begins. Black, really, black as the dungeon cell in which she was born, black as the sin that spawned her and her lot, as the other servants were so fond of telling her. Clever, they think themselves.
Dumia imagines a gaping hole where his other eye should be, but he wears a patch, so she can’t say for certain how disfigured he is. The patch is as black as his good eye, but it’s the black matte of linen, edged with a lace so fine and frilly it would have seen him beaten to bits if he lived in the Baygate. But he doesn’t; he lives here on the outskirts of the castle grounds, in a manor house so grand it might as well be a castle itself, and here he can get away with such things.
The three women follow him into the study, a room even grander than the one that they’ve spent the last three hours in. It’s so large she has to swivel her head to take it all in, the walls covered in books from floor to ceiling, two stories up. He gestures to three chairs opposite an enormous desk of some dark wood she can’t identify, and they seat themselves, sinking into the rich upholstery.
Then he spends several minutes sorting half the contents of his desk into tidy little piles whilst ignoring them completely. She wants to say something, but she hasn’t the slightest idea what.
“I trust you know why you’re here,” he says after giving them ample time to squirm in their seats. When they all shake their heads, he continues. “Well, last week’s endeavor was a success. A marvelous one, in fact. The prince will be presented to the public in a few days. Recognized as heir to the throne.”
Cendrine and the other woman both nod. They seem to know what he’s referring to. Dumia doesn’t. Her chest clenches.
“You all played a fantastically important role in the events of the past week,” he says, drawing out the big words as if to make certain they understand them. Beside Dumia, Cendrine’s hand twitches, as if she’s fighting the urge to slap the man’s hollow cheek. “We could not have done it without you.”
“Thank you for saying that, m’lord,” says the woman Dumia doesn’t know, interrupting him in her excitement. She’s practically trembling with it. Dumia, on the other hand, has stopped breathing. Cendrine looks to have done the same.
“No, thank you, m’lady.”
A smug little smile creeps across Lord Kearn’s face. That’s when Dumia sees it, the flash in his one eye. A reflection.
She turns just as the knife slides into Cendrine’s back. Out of the corner of her eye, she sees the other woman slumping in her chair, the spark already gone from her eyes. Her heart vibrates in her chest, staccato beats thumping so rapidly that one merges into the next. The world blurs and shifts, lilting as she slides down into the upholstery.
“You shouldn’t have moved,” Lord Kearn says to the midwife, watching from behind his desk, amusement in the arch of the eyebrow above his patch. “You’ve just made it harder on yourself.”
“How?” Cendrine croaks. Dumia stares at the woman, still unsure this is happening.
The knife sinks in a second time.
Dumia awakens to Lord Kearn’s skeletal face hovering just inches above her own, causing her heart to leap painfully in her chest. How did she get here? She must have fainted. Why would she… oh.
“Dumia Eskata,” he says.
How does he know her name?
“You’re a maid at the castle. A Magger servant. One of the Soulless. Tolerated because this king of ours forces our tolerance.”