A MAGPIE MIND
Seventeen-year-old Suraka Eskata possesses a talent for speaking with magpies: a gift so taboo that fifty years earlier, it would have seen her burned on a pyre. Nowadays, she and her younger sister Aloma are simply branded and forced to lead uneventful lives in the Soulless Quarter with all the other members of the untouchable ‘Soulless’ caste.
That is, until the cruel crown prince proves to be literally soulless and the kingdom’s greatest tragedy – the Soulless Hunt that saw hundreds burned to death- threatens to repeat itself. Terrified of her charge and all that the future holds should he be allowed to inherit the throne, the prince’s governess, Taite, sweeps her best friend Suraka and the magpies up into a treasonous plot to replace the prince with a more deserving heir.
An heir who happens to be dead.
Magpie wings batter fury on the thickened glass. Black. White. Black. White.
“Chase them away, Dumia. Diseased wretches.”
“Not now,” the girl whispers 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, her eyes never once leaving the window. Across the way, another flock of birds assault stained glass in the royal tower. Hopefully they’ll have more luck than the ones she’s just chased off.
“What was that, Magger?”
A week later, a summons arrives. 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.
“My master wishes to speak with you, girl.”
“But…” she claps a hand over her mouth, mortified at having spoken out of turn.
“This has already been cleared with the quartermaster,” he says, turning sharply on his heel and walking down the hall.
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.
A man nearly seven feet tall and bearing a sword larger than she’s ever seen before or ever cares to see again meets them at the servants’ entrance. That sword could kill someone just by falling over. 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.
As flattered as Dumia is to have been summoned alongside these two women, so obviously above her rank they should be ashamed to be seen with her, she’s also suspicious.
Fortunately, she’s not the only one.
“Do you know what this is about, Adrin?” Cendrine asks as the three plod after the enormous guard through a maze of heavily paneled halls.
“Haven’t any idea,” says the woman she doesn’t know. Adrin. “But the boys are doing well, aren’t they? The babes?”
Cendrine nods stiffly.
“Well then,” Adrin 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.
It’s a feeling not improved by the three hours they’re forced to wait outside of the master of the house’s study. He’s called Lord Kearn, Adrin tells them. 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. Maybe they don’t know either.
When they’re finally called in, she’s ready to jump out of her skin, and nearly does so as the man’s 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 are 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. Here such things are commonplace.
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 Dumia must swivel her head to take it all in, the walls covered in books from floor to ceiling, two stories up. Lord Kearn 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.
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 her mind is blank.
“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. “Last week’s endeavor was a success. A marvelous one, in fact. Outside interference was prevented. 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 Adrin, interrupting him in her excitement. She’s practically trembling with it. Dumia, on the other hand, stops 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 what is happening.
The knife sinks in a second time.
Dumia awakens to Lord Kearn’s skeletal face hovering just inches above her own. Her heart leaps 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.”