Chapter One- Jet
Face pressed against the cold glass of her window, Jet watched a new day dawn in the free city of Sinfall. From her house set high on the Seaview Terraces, her view over the endless spires and domes was almost worth the monotony of being a lady. To the East, beyond the marble of the great walls, the crags and bluffs stretched out over miles of rocky coast, all the way to the churning sea that marked the end of the world. Not a half day’s ride from the city gates, it was a stormy nightmare that no man had ever challenged and lived to return.
North, towering over the other terraces was the imposing silhouette of the Royal Hold, the ancient castle in which the King of Sinfall and his court made their homes, back in the days of the Dynasty. No king lived there now; the glory of the world had long faded, leaving a weak man sat on the city throne. Her Father often spoke of the place, ‘a monument to human stupidity’.
I wish I could fight in wars and save cities. I wish I could fight the evil church and kill Saints. But they were foolish dreams for children and Jet knew it. I’m thirteen, high-born and a girl. Even if there was a war, I’d be made to sit in a hall safe in the Royal Hold, protected from the big bad soldiers. She hated being a child sometimes. Turning away from her high window, she slipped into one of the expensive silken gowns in her wardrobe, which for some reason the merchants and nobles seemed to think was required of her. She winced at the memory of the slap she’d received when she ran into a traders’ meeting in leather tunic, although it was worth the look on he Father’s face.
Looking into the full-length mirror on her wall, she saw a stranger looking back, some lady dressed in a fancy gown and with ribbons in her hair. This isn’t me. This is my Mother come again, just like Father wants me to be. She remembered her clearly, a thin, beautiful woman with wavy, blonde hair cascading down her shoulders. She was beautiful, but I’m… I’m not, and I don’t want to be. Unlike her mother, her hair was completely straight and dark as night, jet black. That’s where her name came from; Jet, sleek and dark. It fit her well, a girl of small stature and dark features, swift and deft as a shadow.
‘Jessica love,’ came a high pitched call from the other side of the heavy oak door, ‘you must come down now, your father awaits your presence.’ Bloody hell, not this idiot. Why would she act like that, she’s a grown woman. Can’t she act normally? That, of course, was no way to treat a maid, so as she walked out of her room, she gave a little curtsey to the fat woman.
‘Bertha,’ she replied with a delicate voice, the very definition of courteous, ‘you’re looking especially lovely today.’ You fat old cow.
‘It’s kind of you to say so, my lady,’ came a whimper from between her nose and chins. It disgusted her. She was still a little girl, how could this oaf be intimidated by her? Having decided she was bored of the façade of politeness, she ran off down the spiralling stairs. If there was one thing to be said for living on a hill, there were a lot of stairs to run around, which drove the maids mad. It was one of the few fun things to do in there though, since most of the house was reserved for her father’s councils.
Wandering through the main corridor, she saw her father talking to some member of the merchants guild. Why does he take his job so seriously? He makes so much money we can live in a place like this, then can’t enjoy because he’s always worrying about his job. Why not get a different job, have a bit less money, but be happier? What’s so important about money? She wouldn’t dare say that to her father, though. She had a gut feeling that pointing out where he was going wrong would cause him to be angry, but she wasn’t sure why. Just as she was contemplating slinking off to the kitchens to get food from Simon, the cook’s son, her father turned and caught her eye. Looks like I’ll be introduced to Baron von Who-cares? now. Great.
‘Ah, Jessica, this is Lord Vanmeich, one of my fellow Merchants. He’s here from Oldgarden to trade us some supplies and will be with us at council tonight. That is if you bother to turn up to this one. All this running off isn’t good for you. Anyway, we can’t be too careful nowadays…’ he trailed off. Saving her questions for later, she stepped forward to shake his hand. As she touched his skin, a shudder ran down the length of her body. He’s so cold. Cold and clammy like a corpse. Looking up at his face, the experience didn’t improve. Although dressed in a rich crimson velvet suit, his face lay gaunt and tight, his bones seemingly trying to escape their skin. Seeing her expression, he smiled a smile which was probably meant to be reassuring, but his dead eyes and clammy skin turned it grotesque. His eyes are wrong. They shouldn’t be so small. Small they may have been, but as he stared at her they seemed to strip her to her soul.
‘Jessica,’ came her father’s voice with a hint of worry, ‘remember your manners.’ Her trance broken by his interruption, she blinked and smiled at the merchant. Lord Mech? Von Meich? I can’t even remember his name, he’s just some merchant. So why was I so captivated?
‘Nice to meet you, my lord,’ she purred, bowing to him, just like a good little lady. ‘I apologise, I seem to have been miles away.’ Idiot. Lord? Why the hell would he be a Lord?
‘Oh, it’s quite all right, my little friend. It’s early and I’m sure you have better things to do than bother talking to stuffy old businessmen. Your father means well, but don’t make an effort on my behalf. Go, have fun!’ His jolly manner was quite at odds with his appearance, but as she looked closer, she saw a lively fire in his small eyes. Not dead, just tired. Why did I think him scary? She decided she quite liked this merchant, not that she’d seen him before.
‘Good day then, Sir. Morning, Father,’ she said in greeting, before running of towards the kitchens. It was only then she realised he hadn’t said a word since his friend started talking. She wondered what he meant about being careful. There was probably some reason, but history bored her to death and she normally ignored her tutors.
Deep in thought, she realised she was already at the kitchens and had actually walked a few doors too far down the carpeted corridor. Turning around, she ran back to the familiar iron door, behind which many smells were brewing, beckoning her in. Checking to make sure no-one was coming, she pushed the door open a crack and crept inside. I don’t need to hide, they’ll give me whatever I want. It’s more fun though, creeping about and spying. Her father always said her eavesdropping would get her into trouble one day, but she highly doubted that. I’ll only get in trouble if I get caught. I never get caught.
Sliding along the wall to the ovens, she caught the sleeve of her dress on the rough stone. Goddamn these things. I wouldn’t have this problem if I was a boy. The kitchens were a large, airy set of rooms set back into the hill on which the house was built, with huge vents in the ceiling to keep the smoke from building. Despite this, a haze of black spread itself over the quarters in the morning, with the combined effort of the numerous ovens and hundreds of braziers set along the wall. It wasn’t a place for a high-born lady, a dirty, smelly smoky place full of peasant workers, boiling pots and steps you could easily fall down and break a bone, yet it was Jet’s favourite place in the entire villa. I wonder where Simon is. He’s normally working the bellows at breakfast… Spying a small boy with curly brown hair carrying a large silver vat almost as big as himself, she let out a laugh. He’s so stubborn he won’t even ask for help. I’d better help him before he falls over and gets my dinner all over himself. Abandoning her pretence of stealth, she hitched her dress up and ran after him. ‘Simon,’ she said with a good natured laugh, ‘I hope you’re not planning to join that soup, because if you drop it, that’s where the cooks will put you!’ He was a silly, timid boy most of the time, but when they were alone he came out of his shell and after all, he made her laugh. Laughter was a rare sight in her father’s villa.
‘Oh, hello Jet.’ He sounded rather tired, but that was hardly surprising considering his job.
‘Do you need any help?’ she asked teasingly. He hates admitting he can’t do something, stupid prideful boy. ‘That looks quite heavy for one person.’
‘Oh, no, no, I can manage it, I don’t need your help, I can do it, you shouldn’t be here if your father comes he’ll, he’ll-‘ he stuttered. Bless him, he’s terrified just because I’m in the kitchens. Anyone else acting like that would have made her angry, but the kitchen boy was too nice to anger anyone. Ignoring his protests, she grabbed the other side of the steaming pot and together they carried it to the serving counter on the far side of the room.
‘Do you have the afternoon off, Simon? I’m bored to death here. I want to go to the library, stand on the roof and look over the city. Want to come?’ I hope he is free. There’s nothing to do here and I’m not allowed with the children from the lower city. She understood that it was dangerous for someone from the guild to go to the lower city, but it wasn’t her fault she’d been born into a bloody merchant’s family.
‘Sorry, Jet, but we’re putting on a reception for a group of Dukes. The Church is getting nearer all the time, so everyone’s making preparations to fight them off. There’s talk of spies in the city… maybe even Crimson Cloaks in disguise! Still, that doesn’t mean I can’t see you, I have no father to stop me going out because of a chance of war. I have an hour for lunch, we can go to the gardens if you want?’
‘Crimson Cloaks? I always wanted to be one of them, fighting wars… mind you, I still hate the Church.’
‘Did you even hear a word I said? I swear, things are getting bad. Our army’s getting desperate, they’re even apparently looking for squires! I would join, although I don’t want to leave you alone… who’d cook make your soup then? A squire, though… One day I could even be a knight! ‘ His face lit up as he explained it, obviously excited by the news. So he wants to leave too. He’s going to go off and be a knight and I’ll be left here. Still, he’s wanted this for so long, I can’t begrudge him his dream. When he talks about squires and knights and honour, he’s the happiest I’ve ever seen him. When the time comes, I’ll say goodbye with a smile, not with tears.
‘I’ll keep an eye out for anyone who walks past in armour then. I might join with you!’ If I could, I honestly would.
‘No, they only accept boys.’ She groaned inside. Obviously he didn’t understand the notion of sarcasm.
‘Well… see you, then. I’ll be at the courtyard for midday.’ Looks like I’ll be alone until then. It seems I’ll have to get used to being alone nowadays.
‘No, Jet, I… I can’t meet you there. I’m not allowed on the plaza, remember? I’m only a servant.’
‘Oh… yes, I know. Well, back here then.’ Stupid, stupid, stupid! Why did I have to say that? She left the kitchens in a substantially worse mood than she’d entered in. Anger was boiling in her stomach, anger at him for not being rich, at the bloody merchants for keeping him busy, at her father for never being there, at the world itself for how unfair it was, but most of all at herself for being such an idiot. I need to do something today, or I’ll be given another tutor to tell me about some queen hundreds of years ago and teach me how to write. I already know how to write, why would I need a tutor for it?
Deciding against returning to speak to her father and his friend, she set out to the back entrance to the villa, the quickest way to reach the Library of Sinfall and its gardens. Once she was certain no-one was around, she began running down the carpeted hallway towards the door, enjoying the feeling of the light breeze running through her long, brown hair. Before going outside, she grabbed hold of her necklace and pulled it over her head. Attached by a small silver chain to the bottom of it, the key was pulled up from its hiding place down her dress.
Taking one last glance, she unlocked the door to the storeroom and headed into the dark room.
No more of this bloody dress, thank goodness. Groping around in the darkness, she laid her hands on the box of matches where she’d left them, on a small shelf to the left of the doorway. Carefully lighting a match, she held the small flame to each of the candelabras in the room, before throwing it to the floor as the flame began to burn the tips of her calloused fingers. My private treasure chest. The light from the candles lit the storeroom in a soft orange glow, creating a warm, cosy atmosphere. Closing the door behind her, she quickly unlaced her dress and stuffed it into one of the barrels in the corner, placing her jewellery on top of it before covering it with a sheet. From the barrel next to it, she pulled out her old tunic and breeches, pulling the rough leather over her head and stepping into the soft cloth, tying it with a cotton rope. Finally, in place of the heeled shoes she’d worn, she tied a pair of simple sandals, rendering her transformation complete.
Having put the matches back in their accustomed place, she snuffed out the candles, locking the door behind her and hiding the key in the top pocket of the tunic. Pockets. No one appreciates how useful they are until they have to wear dresses every day.
Stepping out the door into the open air of the communal gardens of the terraces, she stretched and tied her hair up, looking all the part of one of the servants. It felt good to not only be out of uncomfortable clothes and out of the villa, but also good to be out of her position as an upper-class lady. The kitchen staff may be poor, but their lives are more exciting than mine ever will be. Striding out amongst the trees, she made straight for the road leading down to the library, where she planned to sit in the shade reading for an hour. Although she’d only be allowed on the lower floor, where the lower classes were permitted, it was still a great deal better than having to remember to be courteous there and forced to go to the section with books ‘suitable’ for children. Why can’t I read the same books as adults? I’ve talked to enough people, I know about the world, no matter how hard father tries to protect my innocent little mind, the fool.
As she was about to pass through the gate, she became aware of someone behind her.
‘Jessica, my dear,’ came a familiar voice from behind her, ‘your father would go positively mad if he saw you dressed in that get-up! What do you think you are doing?’ Turning around, her face broke into a childish grin of delight as she saw her uncle eyeing her with a raised eyebrow and a smirk on his thin but friendly face. He too had dark hair, just like her and her father, although his was short and styled in the fashion of the southern nations, where he had been forging trading alliances for years. He seemed to be down there just as much as he was in his own country, causing his brother to affectionately call him ‘The Foreigner’. When he’s here, Father’s always in a good mood!
‘Uncle John! What are you doing here?’ she asked in wonder, all her anger forgotten.
‘Boring trading business I’m afraid, but it’s good to see you again. It must be almost a year since I last saw you. My, how you’ve grown. That outfit… I hate to say it, but you make a wonderful peasant.’
She giggled, glad to have a friendly face around again. Maybe things aren’t quite as bad as I thought they were here. Uncle’s here, Simon will be free this afternoon and I have hours before I have to be back for council. ‘Thank you… I try my best. You won’t tell father, will you?’ Please say he’s nice to me. Please, please, please.
‘Of course not, he’s my brother. Why would I make things easy for him? Now, don’t tell me, you’re off to the library. Go on with you then, just remember to come back! I should imagine you’re wanted this evening. I know you find it boring, but your father is holding court for the whole city- it’s a big occasion. Then again, big things are happening at the moment. I think things could change rather a lot in the next few days. There’s been strange talk on the way here. ‘ He had a quizzical expression on his face, which put a smile on hers.
Running off again, she left the villa’s grounds and made her way down the street, the towers of the library looming over her, the sunlight shining on the ornate stained glass of the building. ‘Things could change rather a lot.’ I hope so. Something needs to happen in this glorious, shining, boring city.