“My Lord,” I murmured, bowing my head in the careful manner Miss Jana had taught me, as the older man walked by.
The Head Maid’s lips twitched in approval, and I smiled, knowing this meant extra slices of bread later tonight.
“This is your home now, Sher,” Miss Jana murmured when the Lord was gone. “I know us maids don’t live in extravagance, but I promise as long as you serve my Lord and his family well, you’ll never starve. Perhaps you can even become Head Maid in your later years.”
In many, many years, I thought. I was still just a girl, hardly seven years of age. The idea of becoming Head Maid felt like a distant dream, and thus nothing to concern myself with. “Do not worry, Miss Jana. I won’t be ungrateful, promise.” The older woman had spotted me begging beside the docks, and quickly decided to bring me with her. “This place is much better than being alone on the streets. Old Dina told me most orphans don’t even get to smell the cookies we have in the kitchens! I don’t mind dusting, mopping, and all the rest, if I get to eat this well forever.”
Miss Jana gave a rare smile, patting my hair gently. “I hope you won’t regret living here,” she whispered.
I blinked in surprise, wondering whether I imagined the momentary sadness in her eyes.
Then her lips tightened, “We must return to the main hall, none of the draperies have been swept.” I sighed internally, instinctively knowing those darn draperies would be all I’d see this morning.
“My Lord,” I murmured, bowing my head.
The older man gave a small nod of acknowledgment, as he always did, then smoothly moved on. The young girl behind him was not so unbothered, flashing me a wide grin. I smiled back, a bit more reserved, knowing my Lady would not want her daughter openly frolicking with a maid.
Indeed, the young Lady also understood, although I knew she cared less about such things than I, and quickly picked up her pace to meet her father ahead.
“Don’t do it, Sher.”
I frowned at Miss Jana, who seemingly appeared out of nowhere from behind. It used to startle me, but over the years I learned the Head Maid had a talent for detecting mischief before it could happen.
“Do what?” I mumbled, knowing it was useless.
“Go horse riding with the young Lady again.” Seeing my expression, Miss Jana sighed. “I know… I know you think of her as a friend, and she does the same, but it’s best to stay out of sight—”
“So you think I’m not good enough?” I clenched my fists, hating how clear the hurt was in my voice.
“No, Sher, that’s not—“
“I know I’m just a maid, and worse, an orphan, but I thought of all people, you would…” I hesitated suddenly. What? What did you think? Don’t you remember all those times she praised you, it was because she thought you’d be a good Head Maid, not a Lady, or anything else. Nothing more, stupid, hopeless Sher.
“I-I’m sorry,” I said, staring at the ground. “You’re right, I shouldn’t dare to associate with someone like Young Lady. I’ll stay away from horse riding, don’t worry Miss.”
I rushed off, embarrassment and frustration clouding my vision. By the time I reached the kitchens, my legs were aching and I felt out of breath. Suddenly, something grabbed my arm, and I jumped back.
“Oh, Sher, you’re so silly!” said the Young Lady, a hand on her hip, and a smile on her face. “You were supposed to meet me at least five minutes ago.” The young Lady was a punctual person, a habit instilled in her by her father, most likely.
I frowned, hoping my face was intimidating enough. “I can’t today, go with one of the other girls.”
I scowled, walking away. But the Young Lady clung onto my arm, her grip tight and her voice decidedly whiny, as she begged. I tried not to wince as she went on about the poor, poor horses, and how lonely they’d be if we didn’t see them.
I could feel my resolve slowly crumbling with each step across the tiled ground. She knows I love those horses.
Then I stopped, spinning around to glare at her, and she wisely shut her mouth. We stared at each other until I could feel my eyes tearing up.
Then the Young Lady’s gaze suddenly became piercing, her words uncharacteristically quiet, “You’re like my family, Sher, and—and, my father says families never leave each other.” I opened my mouth, perhaps to say I wasn’t leaving her, that it was just horse riding, before I stopped. But I was going to leave her. If I listened to Miss Jana, then even though we’d be in the same manor, I was going to ignore her, become strangers again. I felt a wash of guilt. I’d be no different than the parents who abandoned me.
I sighed, then, slowly gave a nod, watching as she smirked in victory. Well, it’s just one lesson, I won’t go again. As I was dragged towards the stables, my hesitation was soon replaced with a touch of excitement as I glimpsed the horses’ shiny coats ahead. Later, as I galloped across the field, breathless, with the Young Lady close behind, Miss Jana’s words were all but forgotten.
“My Lord,” I said, eyes firmly on the ground, a broom in my hand. The maids beside me did the same, and the Lord strolled on by. We quickly resumed our sweeping, knowing Miss Jana was particularly fussy today, since guests would be arriving tomorrow.
I stared mindlessly at the tiled floor. It had been months since Miss Jana warned me to stay away from the Young Lady. The memory stirred a swelling of guilt in my throat, making me angry. I don’t want to be the obedient, quiet little maid anymore. It’s not like I’m doing anything outrageous, either, and I’m not the only one who wants to keep doing this. Everytime a sliver of doubt made me hesitate from going to the stables, the Young Lady seemed to read my mind. She’d cling onto my arm, dragging me over. If that didn’t work, she’d start talking
I shuddered, remembering the grating sound of her intentionally high pitched squeals. By the time we were riding past the giant oaks in the forest, my inhibitions would be lost.
Recalling the forest made me sigh quietly. Today there’d be no horse riding, nor likely this week. The guests, who’d be arriving soon, were very prestigious and wealthy, from what I’d heard from Cara, one of the older maids. As such, the Lady and Miss Jana had spared every moment preparing. All the draperies, floors, windows, the ballroom, kitchens, and carpeting had been swept, washed, and dusted raw. My fingers ached heavily and my back was on fire from bending over sweeping.
Orange light flashed in my eyes, and I looked up, realizing the sun was already setting. The maid beside me yawned, and suddenly I felt ready to collapse in my soft straw mattress in the room I shared with the other maids.
“Alright, that’s enough, girls.” Miss Jana said, causing some of the newer maids to startle and drop their brooms. “I can see you’ll be too tired to do any useful work now, so hurry and go.” Seeing my grin, Miss Jana smirked, “The others will still be cleaning late, so you'll have to catch up on any work missed tonight. I hope you all have a lovely sleep.” There was a collective groan after the Head Maid was out of hearing range, mine perhaps the loudest.
“C’mon, Sher. Let’s get some rest before we’re worked like dogs, ‘kay?” Cara stretched her arms out, and I smiled gratefully when she took my broom.
“I’ll get us something from the kitchens first, wait up for me? It won’t take long.” Cara nodded, and I set off towards the main hall.
Soon enough the building was looming over me, it’s banners blowing gently with the wind. Orange and yellow light was rapidly taking over the sky, causing its white walls to glow a soft pink against my face. I hurried to the west end, where the kitchens were situated on the side. Glimpsing the main entrance, serving boys were scrambling in and out, causing quite the scene, so I decided to enter through the back hallways.
Spotting the dimmer, and thankfully empty, hall ahead, I was just about to enter when I heard a familiar cold voice. Without thinking why, I quickly hid behind one of the giant pillars, knowing I’d be covered by the shadows.
“Make sure to tell the Head Cook no apricot desserts should be made tomorrow, the General’s daughter isn’t fond of them.” The General’s daughter? So one of the King’s Generals will be visiting? No wonder Miss Jana’s so stressed. Carefully, I peaked in the direction of the woman speaking, and sure enough, the Lady of the land stood, her maidservant nodding in agreement as she listed some more demands. I shouldn’t eavesdrop, it’s rude.
I was just about to reveal myself and apologize, when my Lady said, her voice unconcerned, “Also, make sure my daughter stays away from that peasant girl she goes horse riding with. I don’t want the General’s family to think she associates with rubbish.”
I gritted my teeth. We can't let the Noble Young Lady frolic around with some orphan maid, I thought bitterly. No, she should be accompanied by the daughters of Generals instead. I swallowed, feeling a sudden emptiness at the thought of the Young Lady riding alongside someone else, grinning wildly as her inky hair whipped behind her. Like I never existed at all, as though she never promised we were family.
“Also…doesn’t the peasant seem oddly familiar? She reminds me of someone… and everytime I spot her, a dreadful feeling overcomes me.” The Lady questioned.
My heart stuttered in confusion. Who could I possibly remind her of? And why do I fill her with dread? I searched my memory, trying to find any meaningful interactions with the Lady, but other than giving a polite greeting and bow occasionally, nothing came to mind.
“Should I inquire further?” murmured the maid.
“Well, it never hurts to be careful, and although her features don’t appear foreign, spies are everywhere these days. Very well.”
The maidservant gave a low bow, quickly scuttling away. I watched as the Lady strode in the opposite direction, her fine skirts swirling like clouds upon the tiled ground. When she was out of sight, I abandoned the hallway, all thoughts of food quickly forgotten.
I burst into the servants quarters, passing by doors which led into the rooms us maids shared together. Some of the girls were still up and wandering. Ignoring Cara’s inquiry of whether I brought some bread, I rushed to the end of the room, where a wooden door stood. Without waiting, I twisted the doorknob and flung myself inside, where Miss Jana sat by her desk.
One candle was lit, painting the room in dull oranges and yellows. Miss Jana turned, frowning. Before she could admonish me for my impoliteness, I blurted out everything that happened in the kitchens.
After I finished speaking, my throat felt dry, and silence filled the room. An unreadable look passed over the older woman’s face. Suddenly, she stood up, marched over and took my arm. Before I knew it, we were out the door and zipping through the hallway.
“Hush,” she snapped. “We can’t talk here.”
I decided to shut up, confusion and a rising sense of panic swelling in my chest. We rushed past so many corners, my feet started to hurt. Then, just when I was about to pull away and demand to know what was happening, we entered the kitchens. The scent of spices instantly hit me, and although it was late, servers scrambled like mice as the Head Cook’s voice thundered over the chaos, giving instructions. Miss Jana pulled me to one of the side counters, where the noise was amongst the loudest.
I waited for someone to yell at us to get out, but to my surprise, no one seemed to notice we were there.
“They’re too busy to bother with us, girl,” Miss Jana gripped my shoulders, her voice somehow more serious than usual, “Now listen, before I say anything else, do you trust me?”
I clenched my fists, a million questions at the top of my tongue, before I forced myself to focus.
Do I trust her?
Yes. My memories of being a beggar were faint, but I still recalled how every time I’d ask for a sliver of food, some would sneer. Worse, most would ignore my gaze and walk by. Miss Jana had been the first to help me with no benefit to herself. If I couldn’t trust her, I couldn’t trust anyone.
Slowly, I nodded.
Miss Jana's lips twitched, an almost-smile on her face, before her next words caused my heart to drop, “The Lord is your father.”
The days after Miss Jana’s revelation were a blur. I felt like I was in a fever dream sometimes, or one of those terribly over dramatic stories the Young Lady would chatter about.
I remembered the Head Maid’s long winded explanation afterwards. Apparently my mother was a former maid she was fond of, who had quickly left the manor after finding out she was pregnant. No one suspected she had an affair with someone like the Lord, as she was somewhat unremarkable in looks and personality, so not many remembered her. Of course, with Miss Jana’s tendency to look after all the girls in her care, she didn’t forget.
Neither did the Lady, I thought, recalling how she seemed to recognize me. I suppose I looked more like my mother than the Lord, which explained why no one ever thought we were related.
After I told Miss Jana about the Lady wanting to inquire about me, she had rushed off into the night to talk with “some friends”. I never saw the Lady’s maidservant since, nor did the Lady seem bothered by my presence, so I was safe for now.
Oh, and apparently the reason why I had survived this long was because neither the Lord nor Lady knew of my existence.
And the best way for me to stay safe was by making sure that didn’t change.
I didn’t know how to feel about that.
I was like a mouse, tiny, insignificant, and desperate to stay alive in a place where everyone would be at my throat if they knew I was there.
I’d thought about leaving, but truthfully, I didn’t have many skills other than cleaning. Besides, from what I’d heard from some country maids, the Lord’s manor was by far better than many other parts of the kingdom.
Staring at the wood above me, I clenched my fist. The oak creaked softly as the girl above me snored.
Truthfully, I didn’t mind staying, nor did I hate staying out of sight. I glanced at the tiny window situated on the far wall, looking past the soft moonlight, towards where I knew the main hall was situated, and where the Young Lady was likely in her chambers at the top floor.
Miss Jana had warned me once again to stay away from the Young Lady, or else the Lady could become more suspicious, and maybe even remember my mother. This time, there was nothing I could do but agree.
“You’re like my family, Sher, and—and, my father says families never leave each other.”
I sighed, letting my hand relax.
I’ll talk to her tomorrow, I reassured myself.
When I woke up tomorrow, heading to the stables after finishing my usual tasks, I saw the Young Lady standing by a bucket of water, looking anxious as she peered in the distance.
For a moment, I paused to stare at her, at my… sister. I guess half sister was more correct. The idea was strange and wrong and perfect.
Her eyes widened when she saw me, and then she looked away.
I carefully approached. “What’s wrong?” I asked, confused.
The Young Lady nervously clenched her fingers, then she looked up at me, seeming to gather her resolve, “I-I cannot go riding with you anymore.” Before I could think, let alone open my mouth, she rushed on, “My Lady Mother talked to me, and we—our family really needs the General to support Father, and well… their family looks down o-on—“
“On peasants,” I said coldly.
She cringed, then looked away from my gaze. Quietly, the Young Lady nodded.
“W-we can still meet up, Sher! Just not around—”
“Not around anyone important,” I sneered.
Her lip quivered, and suddenly, I felt a surge of fury and disgust. “Don’t worry about that,” I said. “I wouldn’t dare disgrace the Young Lady with my poor, pathetic presence again.”
“Wait, Sher! That’s not—”
I rushed off, the blood in my head pounding, hating the wetness welling in my eyes.
I recalled her words. “My Lady mother talked to me, and we—our family really needs the General to support father…”
I was never a part of her family. Right then, I made my decision.
“My Lord,” I murmured, bowing my head, as I’d done hundreds of mornings before.
The graceful man gave a minuscule nod, then he was gone from sight. The girl in rich fabrics followed her father. Only those truly paying attention would notice the sadness in her eyes as she glanced at me.
I continued sweeping.