The castle was dark and cool in contrast to the residual warmth of early spring outside. Mistress Kousa kept a swift pace through the wide halls with Willow in tow. The lady's well shod feet were silent on the stone floors, at which Willow stared with intense fascination. Her eyes could barely keep pace with her wonder at the immense structure in which they roamed. How many craftsmen had it taken to build such a manor? She held her questions fast on her tongue, vigilant of the noble woman's warning to her when they had first met.
"I expect you to remain silent," she began, strutting around Willow as she plainly sized the girl up. "I need you for a special task. You'll fill the role convincingly," she nodded in approval of Willow's demure nature. "When we enter the castle, speak to no one. Keep your head down. Follow me." The mistress had taken off at once, hardly waiting for her recent purchase to follow.
She had not uttered a word since. Willow followed obediently, incapable of speaking in the overwhelming enormity of her situation. A million questions burned at her lips, a few thousand doubts nagged at her stomach, and one very solid fear thrummed in her heart. How would she ever escape this place now?
They climbed a long flight of stairs at the far northern edge of the castle, catching glances of the military training camps just outside the walls of the keep. They climbed further, Mistress Kousa never slowing or tiring despite their hearty pace. Willow began to breathe through her mouth, lips and throat aching from thirst. On they went, higher and higher, until the stairs ended in a wide landing. Three doors faced in from three walls, each built of solid oak, strapped and locked with iron. Keys jingled in her hands as the mistress opened the door on their right. "You'll find water on the table. There should be a clean cloth as well," she gestured to their left. "There are gowns in the wardrobe. I'll have your dinner sent up in an hour. You will meet with me tomorrow morning at sunrise. Don't be late." With that, she left, closing and locking the door behind the young woman who stood, quite dumbfounded, inside.
Willow walked the length of the large room, stopping at the window cut into the west wall. The last of the evening light had faded, stealing the details from the landscape far below the tower.
Her fingers touched the glass, drawing her attention to her filthy fingernails, and for the first time in days she noticed how dirty she must appear. Turning towards the table in the corner, she caught the twirl of her own tattered dress in the large, framed mirror by the door. A girl she barely recognized stared back, each transfixed by the presence of the other. She stepped closer, her mirror image doing the same, until they beheld each other within inches of the immense looking glass. Her eyes had not changed, still green and wild as the trees which had sheltered her young life, but little else was familiar. Short red hair peeked from behind her ears, the straight strands ending well above her shoulders. The jailer had cut it her first night after being arrested. He told her he abhorred fleas. She pulled at the unkempt ends, willing it to lay flat. It refused. Her eyes strayed to her hands and arms, bruised, scratched, cut, and caked with dirt and blood. She looked for the basin of water on the waist-high table to her right and began to clean her flesh.
"Why?" a voice whispered in the shadows. She scrubbed harder. "Why, Willow?" the ethereal voice continued. "Why did you lead them to us?" The basin of water turned murky with the dust from weeks of neglect, punishment, and imprisonment.
Pausing to let her mind wander to the faces of the Cirque who had become her family, despite her efforts to deny it, Willow felt the hollow ache of tears in her head. She looked at her reflection, desperate to let the tears fall, but no amount of pain or fear could summon them now.
Turl and Catch had set the fires. Trace's dark charm had enveloped the camp in unnatural darkness to provide cover. They were prepared. They knew what to do. "And we still died."
The redhead closed her eyes to choke out the visions, telling her hands to keep moving. Willow cleaned and scrubbed for ages, relieved at the feeling of refreshment, but still frustrated at how much filth remained. The water was muddy and brown, the once clean linen now soiled beyond repair. Her efforts served both the orders of Mistress Kousa and Willow's need to let her mind rest from the confusion of the day. When she had nearly run out of dirt to scrub, a light knock sounded at the door. A key grated in the lock, and the door swung open to reveal a scrawny maid, barely half Willow's modest size, clad in a service gown and carrying a wooden tray laden with a meal fit for the Queen herself. The little maid stepped inside and set the tray down on the table next to the red-haired gypsy. "Your dinner, m' lady," she curtsied quickly, scrambling to leave as fast as she had entered.
Willow stopped her with a gentle hand on the girl's wrist, "Wait, please wait." The girl looked up at her. "I'm not a... lady," she wrinkled her nose at the formal title. "Will you just.... stay a moment and tell me about the castle?"
The girl glanced at the tray of food nervously. "You're new here," she said simply. Her apron was far too big for her, wrapped twice around her thin waist. Her eyes darted around, always landing on the feast.
"Are you hungry?" Willow gestured to the food, hoping it might persuade the girl to talk. She took a slice of bread and held it out. It was snatched with a powerful force, then wolfed down in three bites by the underfed maid. "You're welcome to more. There's plenty," she said encouragingly.
"I can't stay, m' lady," the girl stared longingly at the roast beef and sauce. "Cook'll skin me."
"Just a moment longer, then," the young woman compromised, her own hunger growing by the second. "Eat your fill if you like. And please don't call me that. My name is Willow." She desperately wanted to gorge herself on the heavenly smelling dinner prepared for her, but information was more valuable than food right now. "Can you tell me why the Mistress Kousa brought me up here?"
The maid's eyes grew wide and her mouth slowed, gravy dripping down her chin. "Oh, miss, I can't talk about her. That'd be trouble for sure."
"Is she cruel?" Willow began to worry.
"No," the girl shook her head, forcing more meat into her mouth. "She's fair, just keeps her business to herself, is all. I don't want no trouble from her. She's a noble woman."
Willow thought on the information as the girl chewed. "She told me to meet her at sunrise. But my window faces west."
"I'll come wake you," the maid offered, still swallowing. "Anyway, you're to be locked in for the night. Someone's got to let you out."
Locked in. Had she traded one type of imprisonment for another? "Thank you. Will you tell me your name?"
The skinny girl looked her up and down, wary and careful. "Jinna," she finally said, dusting crumbs off her apron.
Willow smiled. "Well then, Jinna, I'll see you in the morning. Thank you for staying a while."
"You know there are clean dresses in the wardrobe, right? You look like you just came from the slave market," Jinna remarked on her way out of the chamber.
A short rap at the door forced Willow's eyes open, separating her from the only peaceful sleep she had enjoyed in weeks. Heavy rain pelted the west-facing window in the dark of early morning. A key grated in the lock and encouraged her feet to find the floor. Cold stone sent shivers up her spine. "Mornin' m'la-" the maid stopped suddenly. "Miss Willow," she corrected herself and curtsied. Willow yawned. "None o' that, now," she chastised. "An' Mistress Kousa won't be seen with you if you can't clean up better neither," she admonished the ragged young woman, pulling a hairbrush from her apron pocket. Motioning for Willow to stay seated, the maid climbed up onto the bed and began brushing the unruly red hair. "You need a new barber." She pulled and fought with the tangles, bringing tears to Willow's eyes.
"Let me," she took the brush from Jinna, hoping to spare the rest of her locks from torture.
"You're gonna need the Black Knight's sword to get through them tangles."
Willow stopped. "Black Knight?" She had overheard rumors of a black knight during her imprisonment in the dungeon. One man called him a savior. Another called him a devil.
"Sure you've heard of him?" the girl eyed her with skepticism. Willow shook her head. "Some talk big, but none up here's seen him, is what I think. Them's that come up from the south seem to know a fair bit more. I've heard," Jinna began to whisper conspiratorially, "that he's really a black sorcerer and not a knight at all!"
Willow's heart pounded wildly in her chest. Could any of them have survived? Or were there more than the original number? Though she had left everything behind her so many winters ago, her heart still called out to the forested valley, always wishing for a reply. A black sorcerer in the south could only mean more witch-hunting, more death, and more loss. Had the Circle fled to safety elsewhere? Or had Ren stubbornly kept them there? It's me they want, she told herself. I was a fool to think I could outrun fate.
"He's faceless, too," Jinna went on, oblivious to Willow's inner conflict. "That can only be the doing of magic. Dark magic," the girl's eyes widened.
"Do you believe in magic?" Willow continued to untangle her cropped hair, still deep in thought.
Jinna rounded on her. "Course I do. But you don't joke about it here," she warned. "Anyway, if you want breakfast, you better hurry. Sunrise is soon."
Willow smoothed her hair as best she could, then followed the skinny maid down to the kitchen. She was fed a simple breakfast, then sent to Mistress Kousa's quarters on the east side of the castle. Fearful that she would lose her way, Willow mumbled Jinna's directions as she walked. "Down the center hall, left at the red tapestry," her feet carried her quietly onward. "Follow the light from the east window along the floor. Turn right twice, then left through the stone archway. Knock on the far right door." The maid's directions had proven flawless, delivering a shaking Willow to the doorstep of a destiny unknown.
"Enter!" a voice ordered from within before the girl had even raised her hand to knock. She slowly pushed the heavy oak door, blinded by the light that pierced through a wall of eastern windows. "Sit," the voice again commanded, though not forcefully. Willow blinked and sought the chair that had been offered. When her eyes recovered, she found herself in a wide room, graced by twelve floor-to-ceiling windows of fine leaded glass, illuminated by the grey light of a rain-filled morning. Within each was a picture, telling a story she had never before seen. "I requisitioned them from the Kingdom's glazier," Mistress Kousa strode forward into the light, admiring the art. Her elegant hands traced the lines of the fourth pane, following the edge of a wave of water as it overtook the Western Shores. "Do you know the legend?"
"No," Willow spoke, surprised at how thin her voice sounded.
"Once, before the land knew its own name, before the rivers knew which way to run, there walked the Ancients." Willow's eyes found the first pane of glass. Mysterious orbs of yellow light hovered above a landscape of untamed earth. "Mankind was but a glimmer on the horizon," the lady went on, "as was the sun itself. The Ancients lit a fire upon it, casting warmth to the cold earth upon which we now rest. The wind blew its first breath, and the trees grew and bowed to their masters, their keepers." She turned to Willow, abandoning the tale. "It is the story of the beginning, and of the end." Willow examined the glass, one pane at a time. She tried with all her might to suppress the urge to dive at the pictures, to take them in her hands and rekindle the story that nagged her mind day and night. "It has fascinated me since childhood," the mistress turned back to the light. "I choose to live and work under its glow, for I feel we have much to learn from the past. As for the future," her voice grew colder, "our place is not always so certain." Willow turned her focus back to Mistress Kousa. "No one in this castle knows your past, and that is how it shall remain. I want to make several things very clear," she paced up the long chamber, her back stiff and straight. "First, you are no longer a slave." Willow let out the breath she did not realize she had held. "Second, though you have the will of a free person, you still owe a debt. I expect you to repay it with loyal service. My position within this Kingdom has endowed me with the ability to..." she paused, thinking of the word she required, "employ you where your abilities will be most apt to flourish. Third, any conversation you engage in with me is of the utmost privacy. Fourth, you will be watched." Willow felt a shiver run the length of her spine. This woman was clearly not to be trifled with. "Do not misunderstand," the mistress' face softened, "I wish to place in you the highest trust, but I believe that trust is earned. I wish to see you succeed."
Willow cleared her throat. "Mistress," she began, suddenly terrified to speak.
Forcing the air from her lungs, the young woman nearly screeched. "I... I wonder what it is you wish of my service. I am not skilled at much..."
"On the contrary, my dear, I hear you are quite skilled." Willow went pale. "I have spoken with the prison guard about your initial arrest, and it would seem clear that secrecy is no foreigner to you. Neither is the art of healing with herbs and potions." The red-haired gypsy was silent, stricken with the accuracy of the mistress' knowledge. "You see, Willow, information is my business. While there is much I do not know, I am privy to far more than anyone else within these walls. That is how I intend for you to repay your debt." She leaned in close to the girl. "Do I make myself clear?"
"Yes," the answer came softly from Willow's mouth.
"Wonderful," Mistress Kousa smiled with the teeth of a carnivore. "You shall replace Lady Mara, the Princess' handmaiden. I believe Mara has taken quite ill of late." Her voice was short, decisive, almost cruel. "The Princess is young, but I'm certain she will take to you. Many attend her, but she requires the guidance of a proper lady." She looked disapprovingly upon Willow's current physical state. "I will send for my personal maid to attend to your... needs. You will report to me any and all information you intercept beyond the normal prattle and drama of teenaged royalty. I will have your possessions sent up to the south tower immediately."
"Possessions? I have nothing..." Willow tried to explain.
The mistress merely smiled. "That would hardly befit a lady, do you not agree? I think you will find the latest fashions quite stunning in comparison to life on the street. The indulgence of royal life can be quite comfortable." Mistress Kousa struck a fine figure in the grey light, her trademark burgundy dress outlined in thin fibers of gold silk, matching gold laces tying her bodice elegantly and without indecency. "You are being given a second chance, my dear. Do not waste it."
"Speak," the Queen commanded her officer as they walked the length of the stone courtyard. Her long strides forced the middle-aged man to keep up, while too many fine dinners forced him to breathe heavily.
"The enemy advances," he began, his grey and red beard shaking in time with his jaw. "By winter they will be at our very gate."
The Queen stopped, her long gown sweeping forward over stone in the absence of her stride. Olive colored silk gathered and obscured her fine shoes, catching the officer's eyes. He wondered for a moment if the cobbler felt threatened by her sheer power when the Queen's foot was in his hand. "This is excellent news, Admiral. I am pleased with your progress." He dared not smile, but her compliment soothed his nerves for the time being. After fourteen years of service in the Queen's Guard, Admiral Tens was among the few remaining commanders who had survived her wrath, and his service record outpaced his comrades by four years or more each. Failure was not an option under her rule.
"I am prepared to continue with your original plan, Majesty," he bowed before her, his formal battle regalia swishing as he bent, crimson and black flowing together as one. The Queen admired the colorful display, red lips parting in a venomous smile.
Reza gritted his teeth and held his eyes shut as eager hands probed his body. He was pinched and squeezed, his hair tugged on, teeth examined, and skin rubbed harshly as Sanjer haggled with Henry Alvern. "Open your eyes, dammit," the greasy buyer demanded, his foul breath worming its way into Reza's lungs as the young man tried in vain to resist.
"Careful with that," Henry bellowed, stepping in between his goods and his client. He had lost one valuable slave the night before, and he did not intend to let anyone else take advantage of him or his property. "You asked for the best of the lot, and this is it."
Sanjer took his wispy black beard into his left hand and twirled it around his thin fingers, scrunching up his face in thought. Black, hungry eyes peeked out from beneath his long eyebrows, darting from the pretty boy with curly hair to the surly slave master. They had engaged in this dance before. Henry would keep his price firm, Sanjer would haggle. Eventually they would both bend, each content to profit from the misery of their quarry. But Henry's delight was far more short-lived than Sanjer's. His whores weren't allowed to die until it was more profitable than having them alive. He grinned, brushing the long hair from his face. This deal, he knew, was far better than his old friend realized. Four golds for the boy? Henry's knack for pricing his slaves was slipping. "Three," Sanjer offered.
"Three?!" Henry roared, his face burning red. He grabbed Reza by the collar of his shirt. "That's an insult, you old cur! Just look at his skin."
Sanjer looked, and he was impressed. Skin like that was rare indeed. Perhaps this one could be his own for a while. Money had been good this season. After all, what good was all his hard work without a little joy? "Don't you tire of this business, Henry?"
The slave trader was caught off guard by the question. Henry had never been inclined toward conversation with his business partners during trading hours. Let them buy him a drink if they had an interest in his inner thoughts. "Never," he answered quickly, "and my price is still four."
Sighing and thrusting a hand into his pocket, the greasy skin-trader proffered four gold coins, depositing them in Henry's palm and taking hold of Reza in one quick jerk.
"He's such a brute," the skinny man dragging him down the dusty street began. "Nothing like me, I assure you," he smiled at Reza again, crooked teeth shining in the grey morning light. "Now," he clasped the young man's hand in his own as though they were lovers, "tell me your name, pretty one."
Cringing visibly, Reza forced himself to relax by taking a very large breath. Though he was certainly taller and broader than the bawd, he knew that combat was not his strength. Fighting his way out was not a viable option. "My name is Reza."
"Mmm," Sanjer licked his lips, "such a lovely one you are. You'll fit right in," he nodded to himself, exceptionally pleased with his purchase. The red-haired girl would have been a highly-prized addition to his collection, but this one was even better. "But I do have rules, you know," he chided the young man as though he were an unruly child. "You'll keep your hands off the girls unless you're paid to do otherwise." They walked south from the marketplace, shabby buildings rising from the dust to look over the kingdom's southern gate and the passage from civilization into the smoky haze of rural life. Reza's eyes stung from the unclean air, but the tears which fell were not for smog. Willow had been torn from his tenuous grip once more, and now his destiny carried him to a place he wished never to see. Worse than the disgusting acts he would be required to perform was the knowledge that he had failed, and all of his gypsy brethren would suffer the consequence. Sanjer gripped his hand tightly and dragged him into a wide building on the west side of the road, its doorway graced with the purple scarves of a brothel.