Evan’s bed shuddered beneath him as though a herd of buffalo were stampeding across the commons. Thunder? For a moment he wondered if he was about to be drenched in a downpour, or trampled under running hooves, but he was no longer living on the common, lying on a pile of heather. He was a footman now.
He grimaced, peering through a half-closed eyelid. It seemed Kelty was up, and from what he could tell, Grizwald’s pallet was empty as well. Calling them buffalo was an insult to the beasts. Had anyone ever been as loud? He closed his eye again, scrunching his face further into the wool-stuffed mattress. Mornings in the castle were not like this. It sounded as though most of the castle was awake, though it was long past time they should be a-bed. To top it off, his head ached from the ale he’d polished off the night before.
Caleb was calling him. Evan groaned again. Caleb was the least offensive of the other footmen, but still an utter twat.
“Piss off.” He tried to roll over, pulling his woolen blanket with him, but it was ripped from his hand, exposing him to the frigid air.
“What time is it?” Evan sat up. He was tired and, he had to admit, still slightly tipsy.
“Time to get your scrawny ass down to Mrs Fowler’s and bring some blankets to the parlor. You’ll catch a whipping from Mr Burke if you’re not smart about it. There’s a woman come in from the storm. Set to fetch her death of cold, and you’re to fetch those blankets.”
Evan rose and gave a rough salute. “Aye. Right away.”
A vein bulged at Caleb’s temple. Evan watched it closely. It was never easy to tell how far to push Caleb, but still, he should give him some credit, he was a better sport than most, though why he couldn’t fetch the blankets himself was anyone’s guess. Still, while Caleb was mostly a horse’s ass, he was better than Lord Hampton, the ogre, who was like to strike first and ask questions later.
“You’re a cheeky bugger, no mistake.” Caleb stalked to the door, then looked back over his shoulder. “You’d better have those blankets before I get back. You’re lucky it’s me come to rouse you and not Mrs Fowler herself. She’d have the ogre on you with his strap before you could pull on your trousers, no matter how much Cook has spoken up for you. Anyway, I’m off. Lord Hampton’s apparently in a right state. His Majesty’s asking after the commotion. Oh, and for once try to look like a footman.”
Evan waited until the sound of Caleb’s footsteps on the flagstones faded then dressed and ran his fingers through hair that still felt a shade too short. It was dark in the halls and by the sound of it the rain wasn’t stopping. At least he wasn’t still living rough. Cook’s brother had put in a word for him. That was enough to get him the job, but he’d be damned if he would mess this up. Better to be in here with this lot than out there soaked like a shivering rat. He straightened his back, put on his best servile expression and headed towards the stores.
The parlour was usually dimly lit, but light from the tall stained-glass windows and carefully placed lamps generally made it feel homely, if a bit cold. Today, the sun was still an hour away from rising and deep shadows cloaked the room, darker again in the many servants alcoves around its perimeter. Evan handed two neatly folded blankets to Mrs Fowler, then bowed to the visitor, a young, blond woman in ruined riding gear, and backed away to watch from the safety of one of the alcoves.
Mrs Fowler draped the blankets over the bedraggled girl’s shoulders. The young woman was soaked. Water pooled at her feet, and her fingers were tinged with blue. Despite the many eyes roving around the room, all of whom would be quick to chastise him for peeking if they caught him, Evan couldn’t stop stealing glances at her. Even with her blond hair damp from the rain, it managed to fall in attractive ringlets, framing a thin face with high, rosy cheeks. A glance around the chamber confirmed to him that he was not alone in his attraction. He scratched at his cheek. Why was it that the woman looked so familiar? He could have sworn he’d seen her somewhere before. Maybe it was just wishful thinking.
“All of you cease your staring and bring the princess some mulled wine.” Mrs Fowler’s eyes seemed to slice at the air. Startled, Evan nearly gasped out loud. Princess? The woman looked like a vagabond.
“I said to fetch wine,” Mrs Fowler said. “Come now, what kind of reception is this for our guest. Let’s put on our best face despite the hour.”
Evan looked at the floor, hoping he would not be the one to feel the final weight of that gaze. There was too much going on and he did not want to miss even a moment of it. He was relieved when one of the other footmen moved off towards the kitchens. Better him to suffer Cook’s wrath at the morning disturbance to her sacred routine.
“I am so sorry for this inconvenience.” Even across the chamber the young woman’s words carried as though borne on invisible wings. “I was caught between towns. The storm… The horses were spooked. I was thrown.”
“Hush now.” Mrs Fowler dabbed at the princess’s cheek. “Let’s get you warm first.”
“I didn’t think I’d survive the night.” The woman broke into soft sobs, each so delicate that Evan found himself wanting to run over and comfort her himself.
He shook himself. He wasn’t usually sentimental. Living rough had stripped him of that long ago. Feeling self-conscious and silly, he stiffened. It usually took a lot to get to him. Was he being manipulated? The more he watched, the more he became certain the woman wasn’t really upset. It was an act. He looked around the room and saw the others staring at the scene. There, in the center of the parlour, framed in lamplight, she looked as if she stood on a stage. The realization struck him, sending a jolt down his neck towards his tailbone. That was where he had seen her. Last night. The cards and ale had bluntened his senses, but she’d been there. Her and that old man, telling tales and singing songs for silver in the tavern. Of all the nerve.
He looked at her again, this time studying her more carefully. She was lovely, almost doll-like. Innocent. With a face that made him want to pull her close and comfort her, even if that might leave him feeling even more foolish than he currently did. But a princess? She was no more a princess than he was a footman.
Mrs Fowler went on making calming sounds, stopping only when she heard the door to the King’s chamber creak open.
The ancient wooden stairs creaked under Lord Hampton’s weight. He reached the floor of the chamber, lips curled into a snarl. “What in the name of all that’s holy do you think you are doing? And what is this?” His eyes paused on the shivering woman then moved on to Mrs Fowler. Evan expected to see some kind of reaction from her—the Ogre was famously terrifying—but she barely blinked.
“Your lordship.” Mrs Fowler continued to minister to the woman but bobbed her head in a motion that seemed to indicate a curtsy. “As you can see, we have an unexpected guest.”
“Indeed. And did this guest necessitate His Majesty being roused from bed before cock’s crow?” The Ogre did not wait for a response, but approached the woman, lifting her chin with a finger. “Is there a reason you brought her to this chamber rather than finding a place for her near the ovens? I dare say it’s warmer in the kitchens than here.” He tilted his head. “Quieter too.”
“My Lord, please allow me to introduce Her Royal Highness, the Princess Amalia of Castile.”
“Her Royal Highness?” Evan had had few opportunities to see the Ogre in action, but in every one, the man had dominated the room. He’d never before seen him rendered speechless. “Ah. Princess Amalia of Castile. Here? Where is your retinue? Your pages? Your ladies in waiting?” The Ogre’s eyes moved from her face down to the growing pool of water at her feet. “Your wardrobe?”
Mrs Fowler shook her head at him. “She was caught in the storm. Apparently her men fell foul of the tempest and she was unseated.”
The Ogre frowned. “And what, they just abandoned you?”
“I’m sorry, Your Lordship. I fear they lost me in the dark. The lightning…” The woman spoke again. That voice. It dripped into his ears like syrup. Evan found his jaw had opened involuntarily and quickly snapped his mouth closed.
“I would never have arrived unannounced.” Princess Amalia squared her shoulders. “If you will forgive me these unusual circumstances, I will rest and be on my way.”
The Ogre seemed to consider that, pausing for far too long to be polite. “Your Highness, you are, of course, most welcome here. For as long as you need. Mrs Fowler, please see that the princess has all she requires.”
“Of course, My Lord.”
“I will arrange an interview with His Majesty the king on the morrow.”
The princess curtsied with practiced grace, floating down and up again as if the blanket draped across her shoulders were the finest ball gown.
Mrs Fowler sent the princess off with a bevy of maids, newly promoted and beaming at the opportunity. To be a princess’s chambermaid would see them earn a hefty increase in their pay, not to mention the chance to lord it over the rest during meals.
After she had departed, the Ogre beckoned Mrs Fowler over. Evan pushed himself even further back against the wall. They were uncomfortably close to him now, standing just outside the alcove he stood in. He did his best to remain part of the shadows and not draw attention.
“I do not know what to make of this,” the Ogre said. “It is well known His Majesty is seeking companionship. And while I am no herald, I know most of the principalities and am familiar with the monarchs of the continent. I have never heard of Castile or its princess, though she is a beauty.”
Mrs Fowler pursed her lips. “She’s a graceful thing, even in that state. Do you have any reason to think this a gambit?”
“I don’t know what to make of it. The timing…”
Mrs Fowler’s eyes narrowed. “The timing, My Lord?”
“The Duchess of Moravia is scheduled to arrive next week. If the meeting goes well the thought was that, well…they might…”
“I see.” Mrs Fowler leaned closer to the Ogre. “But you don’t think that–”
“That someone would try to ingratiate themselves with the King prior to his possible joining with one of the oldest royal families in the land, a union that would cement them as the preeminent house for generations?” The Ogre grinned, showing all his teeth. They seemed incredibly white. Evan held his breath. “What I think is that this could very well be a way to conveniently create a scandal. Anything to stop the joining with Moravia.” He lowered his voice so that Evan had to strain to hear him. “I wouldn’t put it past our neighbors on the continent to be behind this. It reeks of their scheming. A strong Moravia on their doorstep backed by our military? They’d be fools not to try something.”
Mrs Fowler pursed her lips. “Or it could be that a poor princess very nearly came to a bad end and His Majesty saved her life.”
The Ogre nodded. “It could be, but I can’t help worrying. Any of those tinpot Continentals could be hatching a plot and what better bait could they have sent? They all have their spies, but we’ve been careful. I expected they would find out eventually. Just not this quickly. Nothing must prevent our joining with the Moravians. The future depends on this union.”
“Is it widely known? I hadn’t heard.”
“It is a sensitive matter of state. We are treating it with confidence. An announcement will be made in a few days.”
Evan cringed. This was something he had known. He’d helped Caleb with some of the preparations. Had he been responsible for letting this slip at the inn? Curse his loose tongue!
The Ogre frowned, bushy eyebrows joining above his bulbous nose in what looked like a huddle of hedgehogs. “What I do know, Mrs Fowler, is that when His Majesty sees her—and no doubt she will be well-groomed or I do not know you half as well as I believe I do—he will fall for her. And he will fall deeply. Mark my words. He’s as hungry as a spring carp. Which means…”
“Which means we have scant few hours to find the truth.”
The Ogre beamed, a hideous sight. “I knew I could count on you. And of course, I equally hope I can count on your total discretion?”
“But of course, Your Lordship. You and I go back far enough to know what’s needed here.”
“That we do. In that case,” the Ogre yawned, “I’ve important work to do back in my chambers and an angry monarch to placate. I shall leave this in your capable hands.”
The Ogre did not appear to spare the room another thought, but worked his way back up the stairs to the King’s Chamber, wooden stairs again protesting against each heavy footfall.
Evan let out his pent up breath, but was still too scared to move. Mrs Fowler still hadn’t moved away, so he was unable to extricate himself from the wall at the back of the alcove. After a moment more, she took a single step, then, without turning to him, said, “Don’t think I don’t see you there skulking, Evan. Since you no doubt heard it all, you can help me with the arrangements. We’ve a lot to do. Meet me in my chambers at second bell.”
“Yes, Mrs Fowler.” He said the words softly, but they seemed to echo in the chamber as if the weight of his belief that the princess was a fake had increased their mass. It would be so simple to say something more, so why was he hesitating?
He closed his eyes, turning his face towards the ceiling. There were so many ways this could go wrong. His visit to the inn for a start. He’d snuck out after curfew. That alone would see him terminated. And could he really be sure it was the same girl? She seemed so familiar, yet in the dim light, with her all a-drip, could he really be certain? The conversation he’d have to have with Cook would be painful. Yes, he’d been eavesdropping on Lord Hampton. Yes, he’d bribed a guard to look the other way so he could sneak out through the postern gate. Yes, he valued his position and cared about his future… He lowered his head and opened his eyes. The room seemed a tad brighter, the sky beyond the windows beginning to show signs that the sun would rise again today. And it would again tomorrow.
He sighed. Maybe it was better to keep his mouth shut. After all, the Ogre and Mrs Fowler obviously had their own suspicions. If necessary he could tell what he suspected, but not today. Today, he was a footman and he wanted to remain so as long as he could.
Evan leaned against the Princess’s chamber wall, panting and surveying the fruits of his efforts. The princess’s bed was piled high with an assortment of rugs, furs, mattresses stuffed with hair and rushes, woolen quilts and blankets. There were over thirty layers in all, the original mattress now entirely buried beneath the eclectic collection of coverings. It had taken him hours to bring it all down, but he’d done exactly as Mrs Fowler commanded.
Breath returned, he pulled the final item out of his jacket pocket–a dried pea–and walked over to the bed, placing the pea as close to the bottom of the pile as he could, an arm’s length deep towards the center of the bed.
Whatever they hoped to achieve by this, he didn’t know. Wouldn’t sending a message by pigeon to confirm the princess’s identity be the easier course? It seemed like the more effective course of action. But Mrs Fowler was adamant that this would work, and he wasn’t going to be the one to gainsay her.
He had just extracted his hand when the door flung open behind him. He turned in time to see the princess stalk into the room, slamming the door shut behind her.
“What are you doing in here and what is all this?” The treacle in her voice was gone, replaced by ice-covered knives.
Evan bowed. “I was asked to see to your comfort, Your Highness.”
The door opened again, this time more tentatively and her coterie of maids entered the room. They took in the scene and shared a look, eyes darting back and forth.
“Out. Out.” The princess shooed them away with her hand. “You may all wait outside. I’m sure the footman can explain all of this to me without you lot gawking on.”
The maids filed back out of the room, some giggling, most looking slightly troubled. The more senior of the group hesitated at the door. She looked from Evan to the bed and back again.
“You too, Annie,” the princess said. “Oh, don’t look so scandalized. You’ll be right outside the door and this won’t take but a minute. Not even this fine specimen of a footman could ravage me in that time. Besides, I can take of myself.” When Annie had left the room the princess turned her gaze on Evan. “So this is for my comfort?”
Unsure how best to react, Evan gave another bow and nodded.
“By making me sleep on a man-made mountain? Ridiculous. Remove it all at once. No one could sleep on all that.”
He hesitated. On the one hand he had his orders. On the other the princess seemed nearly as terrifying as Mrs Fowler. “I’m afraid I can’t do that.”
The princess looked at him, eyes seeming to bore into his. He looked back uncomfortably, not willing to be the first to look away. After a moment she leaned back. “Ah, I see it now. You know. You know, don’t you?”
He swallowed. The pulse in his temple throbbed.
“Confess. You remember me, don’t you?”
How was he to answer? Sweat dripped down the back of his neck. The fabric of his shirt sticking to his skin. Mrs Fowler wasn’t going to like knowing he’d been found out so quickly.
“I knew it.” She smiled, a shrewd look with too much scrunching of her lips and narrowing of her eyes. “I told him we needed to use more, but he said a drop in your beer would suffice. The old fool.”
His beer? “What–“
She rounded on him, her face so close he could smell her breath. So sweet. She smiled, then put her hands on his shoulders dragging him so close he could feel her bosom pressing against him.
“You like this, don’t you?” She stroked his cheek with a finger. “I can see we underestimated you. Though you were so very helpful. You know of course that one scream from me will see you hang? The punishment for a commoner laying hands on a princess is death.”
He tried to pull away, but she was stronger than he expected. “So what’s it to be?”
The doorway stood not four short paces away. It may as well have been at the end of a long corridor.
“Let me tell you then, since you seem so lost for words all of a sudden.” She pushed him back. “Your name is Edgar, yes? Egan?”
“Evan, Your Highness.”
“Yes, that’s right. Hardly seemed necessary to remember at the time, but oh how things change. You and I, Evan, are about to be best friends. Joined at the hip.” She smiled. “Not actually– don’t get ahead of yourself–but figuratively. There’s too much at stake here. So I’m going to make this easy for you. You will help me and I will not reveal that you were out after curfew. We shall become co-conspirators, you and I. What do you say?”
Evan’s head seemed to fill with fog. All he could imagine was Cook swinging her favorite chopper in his direction and how cold it was on the Common when the pond freezes over.
“You seem to be having difficulty deciding, Egan.” She pulled him close again, then messed his hair, her fingers curling through his locks. “Don’t think too hard. If only you knew what was at stake, you’d forgive me in an instant. If you only knew what I’ve been through just to be here… But you don’t, and I cannot tell you all I know. I will tell you this much: war is coming. And if you value your life, you will move heaven and earth to help me succeed. We have this one chance to stop them, to unite our nations by marriage instead of bloodshed. If the old men get their way, they’ll be stacking up corpses like firewood. You think they will let you remain here? A footman? When men will be needed to man the ramparts and hold the pikes?” She stepped away, watching.
War? Was it true? He risked a glance at the bed. All he had to do now was agree and remain silent. Not tell her of the pea and the test. Just get to the door and he could be away. In the morning she would wake to see Mrs Fowler and the Ogre standing beside her bed and be cast out of the castle. Problem solved.
Decision made, he felt much relieved. He nodded. “I’ll do it. I’ll help you. Just please don’t tell them I slipped out to the inn. They’d cut my pay at best and cast me out at worst. If you do, I’ll tell them where we met.”
She tilted her head. “See? That wasn’t so hard, was it, Edgar?”
She smiled then took hold of the bodice of her dress and ripped downwards. The fabric tore a little across her shoulder. He could see the outline of her breast beneath the sheer shift that was now exposed where the dress had been torn away.
“Annie! Annie!” The princess backed away towards the door, eyes wide. Her hands now clawed at her own hair, pulling out the carefully placed clips so that her hair hung in a blond cascade.
The door opened and her maid took in the scene, hand to her mouth in horror.
“Quickly, close and bolt the door,” the princess said.
The maid looked from the princess to Evan. He felt her eyes take in his own mussed up hair, then shift to the princess in her dishevelled state. The point when she reached her conclusion was evident in her facial expression which turned dark, eyes narrowed, glaring at him.
“Help fix me up, Annie.” The princess shot a smile at Evan where Annie couldn’t see it. “The footman was just leaving. You are to say nothing of this, either of you. Do you understand?”
Annie, still looking troubled, nodded. Evan could barely think. He fixed his own hair by running his fingers through it and headed to the door.
“I think we understand each other now, don’t we, Evan?”
He understood. The threat was clear. Say anything at all, and he’d be accused of laying hands on the princess while she was in the king’s care and under royal protection. They might execute him for that. Standing in the doorway, he gave a small bow. “We do.” As he turned to leave he imagined the tiny pea he’d buried beneath all the blankets and allowed himself one tiny smile. She was no princess. Instead she was a pretender, a real piece of work. There was no place for her here at court and tomorrow, the whole castle would know the truth.
The next morning Evan woke early. He dressed quickly and made a short detour to the kitchens where Cook gave him a bowl of porridge and a lecture. He was about to make his way to Mrs Fowler’s chambers when she appeared to take her own breakfast. Cook grumbled about people eating out of turn, but finished serving them both, then went back to her baking. When they were finished eating, Mrs Fowler inclined her head. “Shall we?”
“After you, Mrs Fowler.” This would be a real pleasure.
They arrived at the princess’s chambers to overhear her berating her maids. “The worst sleep I’ve ever had. This is your job. I ought to lash you for this.”
Mrs Fowler knocked on the door. “Your Highness, is everything alright?”
“Please do come in.”
Mrs Fowler entered the room with Evan close at her heels. Inside, the maids were lined up, heads down, standing before an angry princess, still dressed in her nightgown.
“I’ve never heard of such a thing. It’s an outrage.” The princess’s voice grew more shrill.
Mrs Fowler looked to Evan, who shrugged. He had no idea what she was going on about, but the sooner they confronted her about the pea the better.
“Your Highness.” Mrs Fowler stepped towards her, arms out in comfort. “Perhaps if you explained we could assist?”
“It’s this.” The princess held up something small and green between her thumb and forefingers. Evan’s eyes widened. The pea. His chest felt as though someone had encased him in stone. It was hard to breathe. How was it possible? He’d buried the thing as deeply under all the layers as he could.
“What is that?” asked Mrs Fowler. It was terrifying how innocent she sounded.
“This,” the princess said, “is what has kept me up all night long. Your man here,” she glared at Evan, “seemed intent on having me sleep on a volcano of blankets but failed to notice this rodent food. Of all the things to find in one’s bed!”
Evan and Mrs Fowler shared a glance. “You felt that?” Evan asked.
“Felt it? You try sleeping with a bloody great lump under you. I’ve a mind to leave this castle immediately, audience with the king or no.”
“Evan.” Mrs Fowler’s voice was harder than the flagstones in the great hall. Any trace that they had cooperated and conspired to prove the princess other than what she claimed had burned off like fog under the rising sun. “You will apologize to the princess and fix her bedding immediately.”
“Yes, Mrs Fowler.” He heard the quavering in his voice, but it seemed natural when he was shaking as much as he was. How had she felt the pea? She was no princess. She couldn’t be. For all her going on about war and blood. She was a charlatan, hanging out in pubs. She was here only because he hadn’t kept his mouth shut. Wasn’t she? If he hadn’t blabbed about the King looking for a companion, about the upcoming state visit from Moravia. He stumbled to the door, still trying to figure it all out.
At the door, he paused, taking in the room. The princess and Mrs Fowler were both watching him. Annie, holding the door with one hand, was glaring at him as if he were a criminal. It was all so unfair he could scarcely process it.
He bowed deeply, as was the protocol. As he straightened, Annie began to close the door in his face. Before it shut he just caught a glimpse of the princess holding up the pea. She turned her head to one side, smiled at him and winked.
Copyright A.J.Savage 2018
A. J. Savage was born in Australia where they trained him as a lawyer and put him to work. After escaping the sand and the sea, he now lives in Japan with his wife and two children. If you look at him silhouetted against a bright light, you might see the hole in his heart where he says his dog should be.