You know the scent of lavender on the fresh sheets? When you take them from the linen press, you breathe it in, remembering the long rows of purple flowers in the summer sun. You think of the smile on the maisetra’s face when she settles in for the night with that scent still lingering. That’s what I always imagined love would be like.
But loving Nan was like stripping the lavender spikes in Aunt Gaita’s stillroom back in Sain-Pol. The sharp resin filled my head and the memory of it clung to my hands and my clothes. I’d say the prayers to Saint Cheler with my aunt as we distilled lavender water and mixed herbs to add to the soap. Sometimes I’d get a warm, stretchy feeling at the base of my belly, like the one I got during the mysteries at church.
When I was in the middle of the lavender harvest, I’d forget about everything else. I wouldn’t think about how lucky I was that Aunt Gaita picked me out from my brothers and sisters to learn a trade and teach me how to behave proper in service. I’d forget about tending the boiler where the linens were soaking. My mind would wander off and she’d box my ears and threaten to send me back home to mind the babies. I knew she didn’t mean it, but the scent was that strong it could drive everything else out of my head.
Loving Nan was like that. I was never free of thinking of her. I’d watch her from the laundry room door as she went up and down the stairs to the family rooms and find excuses to call her over to ask about some mending she’d brought down. I’d lean close and breathe in how lovely she smelled. Then at night, even when we were so tired we could barely talk, we’d kiss and cuddle in the narrow bed we shared.
Nan was the one who taught me what to do with that feeling in my belly. We’d never meant it to go further than the ordinary sort of keeping company. Most girls in service have a special friend. You get lonely away in the city with no family about. But it did go further. I was so hungry for Nan we’d be up late into the night, trying not to make noise and wake Mari in the next bed and then stumbling bleary-eyed through the morning chores.
I don’t think Mari told on us. Why would she? But someone did. That morning Mefro Mollin, the housekeeper, took Nan back into her parlor and closed the door for a long time. I watched the door until Nan came out crying. She ran upstairs without looking at me. Mollin saw me standing there and took me by the arm without a word and dragged me out the door, across the yard, and out the back gate, then threw me down onto the cobbles.
I was yelling and crying all the way, begging to know what I’d done wrong. Mollin looked down at me like I was a rat she’d found in the soup.
“You little whore!” she spat. “Don’t you play the innocent with me. We’ll have none of your filthy ways here.”
At first I didn’t know what she meant. “I never—” I began. And then I thought about Nan’s face.
You think all sorts of silly things in a moment like that. I thought about how ashamed Mama would be if I came home in disgrace when they’d worked so hard to find me a good position. I worried about not being able to say goodbye to Nan. I thought how the table linens were soaking in lye and would anyone think to take them out? I remembered that my second dress and good bonnet—the ones I wore to church—were up in my room. The silliest thing was that’s what I asked about: my clothes.
Mollin laughed and slammed the gate in my face. “Whistle for them,” she said and went back into the house.
I stood there for ages, shivering in the cold and stamping my feet in the snow. I stared at the back steps with my hands on the bars of the gate like it was a jail. Except I was locked out, not in. Up at the top of the house the curtain moved in the room I shared with Nan and Mari, but no one looked out. What had Mollin said to Nan? Would she be dismissed too? I’d wait there at the gate until I knew.
Finally the back door opened, but it wasn’t Nan or even Mollin. It was one of the footmen, Ionek, swaggering down the steps and over to where I stood. I’d never had anything to do with the footmen—you get in trouble that way—but he’d always seemed friendly enough before.
Now he sneered, “What are you still doing here? Get on with you.”
I was going to sass him back, but my teeth were chattering too much. So when he doubled up a fist and reached for the latch of the gate, I turned and ran stumbling down the lane. I slowed down when I didn’t hear him following. Running like that’s how you end up slipping on the cobbles and falling into the wet and muck. The part of my head that was starting to think knew that every mistake I made from now on would pull me farther and farther down.
* * *
If I’d been born in Rotenek and knew the city better, I would have known places where girls who’d lost their character could hole up and keep safe. But I’d come straight from Sain-Pol to the Fillerts’ house. It had all been arranged with the agency before I arrived, riding wedged in the driver’s seat of Papa’s delivery wagon and gaping at the crowded streets and tall houses. I only stopped at the agency long enough to show them the letter promising me the position and to get directions.
Thinking of Papa made me start crying. What would I tell him when next quarter day came around and I didn’t have any pay to send? What would they think if I disappeared and never even wrote to explain? Would they think I’d run off to get married? I always figured I’d get married some day when I’d saved enough. At least, I always figured I’d get married some day before I met Nan. Then I wasn’t sure. I’d never met a boy that made me feel like she did. It didn’t matter now. I’d disappear and they think I’d gotten in trouble and been too ashamed to go home. I had, just not the kind of trouble they’d think it was. Maybe Aunt Gaita would write to the agency and ask after me, but they wouldn’t know a thing.
The agency. My mind fixed on that. The matron there had said people were always looking for strong country girls to hire. They could find me a new place. People didn’t hire in the middle of the quarter regular-like, but if someone needed help maybe they wouldn’t ask questions.
That idea gave me somewhere particular to go. I hurried a bit, as fast as I could without slipping. I didn’t know if they’d be open and it was all the way down toward the Nikuleplaiz. I passed by it regular when Nan and I had a half-day off and we went to gawk at the Strangers’ Market, so I knew I could find it again. I thought my luck had turned because I saw the door open and a girl came out, followed by the matron.
“You come back tomorrow for directions. And don’t you lose your character.” She handed the girl a packet of paper.
That was when I knew how foolish I’d been. I didn’t have my letter of character from the priest back in Sain-Pol. It was with my things up in the attic room. And they’d want one from the Fillerts too.
The matron saw me standing there staring at her. When I didn’t say anything, she turned and shut the door again. I’d lost my character in every way. There was nothing for me here.
It was dark. I’d never been down near the Nikuleplaiz at night before. I’d never been much of anywhere outside the house after dark. I could smell the stink of the river even through the cold, but it didn’t stop my stomach from nagging at me. I’d been hungry before. That was why I got sent to live with Aunt Gaita. I knew it wouldn’t be too bad at first, but if you stayed hungry too long then it was all you could think about and I needed to think about finding work.
There were market booths in the plaiz and I thought maybe if I helped someone pack up, they’d give me a bite that wasn’t worth keeping over till tomorrow. But others were there before me. The ragged children I’d seen around the Nikuleplaiz had given me the idea after all. I stopped counting how many times I heard no.
The whole plaiz was nearly empty by then and lit only by people carrying lanterns as they crossed the pavement between the church and the river, thinking of their homes and suppers waiting. A group of men huddled around a brazier with a fire going, but when I wandered close, one of them turned and said, “Hey sweetheart, you looking to get warm tonight? I can help with that.”
Nan always teased me about being an innocent, but I knew what he meant. I shook my head and turned away, trying to look like I had somewhere to go.
That night lasted forever and sometimes I still wake up thinking I’m walking through the darkness trying not to be seen by the city watch or worse. The next day was almost as bad. I was hungry by then and stared at the beggars on the steps of the church. I wasn’t a beggar. I thought of what Mama and Aunt Gaita would say if they saw me sitting there with my hand out to strangers asking for a bit of bread. Then I tried not to think about them because I didn’t want to start crying again. I spent all day in the market asking for work, but no one had any. At least, not for me.
* * *
When dusk came, I slipped into Saint Nikule’s church. I only meant to stay a little while. Long enough to get out of the cold. They have to let you come in if you want to pray. And I was praying at first. I had a lot to pray for. I sat near the front by one of the side chapels where there was a brazier. I worked through all the prayers they taught me at the Orisule school back in Sain-Pol. I ended up just begging God to help me so I wouldn’t freeze to death. It wasn’t a proper prayer at all, but I didn’t want to go back outside. I was tired and I thought I could pray as easily with my eyes closed, so I leaned into the corner of the bench and kept saying my Ave and Pater because they were the ones I didn’t have to think hard to remember.
When I opened my eyes there was a bit of light shining through the colored windows and someone had put a blanket over me. That made me sit up quick when I noticed it. One of the priests was standing there watching me. I scrambled to my feet and folded the blanket in a rush, but still neatly, like Aunt Gaita had taught me. I was too embarrassed to look up when I handed it to him and said, “Thank you, Father,” with a little curtsey, as I tried to tuck my hair under my cap and make sure it was on straight.
“Would you like a bit of bread to break your fast?” he asked.
Now I did look up. I wasn’t going to refuse that. Not when he looked at me so kind, like there wasn’t anything wrong with sleeping the night on a pew because you had nowhere else to go. The priest watched me while I ate. Not the sort of sharp eye that folks had given me in the plaiz last night, but like he was trying to figure me out.
“I don’t believe I’ve seen you here before yesterday,” he began.
I shook my head. “No, we went to Saint Churhis, up by the Plaiz Nof.”
He nodded as if that told him something. It probably did. The Plaiz Nof was mostly big houses. Someone like me who lived there would be in service.
“And you need work.”
It wasn’t a question really, so I shrugged.
“Can you read and write?”
That was an odd thing to ask, but I nodded. “The Orisules had a grammar school back in Sain-Pol. And I can do sums—not just tallies for the laundry, but accounts and such.”
He smiled a little at that. “Would you like a more comfortable place to sleep? There’s a place I know that helps girls like you. Before they get into trouble. You aren’t…”
I knew exactly what sort of trouble he meant and quickly shook my head. “Thank you, Father.”
Later that morning he led me to an old stone building—maybe as old as the palace itself. There were women and girls everywhere, that was what I first noticed. It was all girls, and I wondered if it was a convent. They were all wearing gray uniforms with white pinafores and caps, which made me think it as well, but the older women didn’t look like nuns except for the colors.
The woman in the office where he took me was as stern as old Mollin and the office was much the same: all bare and stiff. She rose, saying, “Father Mazzu, I received your note. What have you brought me today?”
He pushed me forward and I made a little curtsey and said, “Good morning, maisetra.” I wasn’t sure about the maisetra part because she looked so important and she might have been a mesnera instead.
“Maisetra Nantin,” the priest said, “this is Rozild Pairmen. She’s very recently fallen on hard times and I think the Poor Scholars might keep her from falling further.”
Maisetra Nantin looked me over with the same hard look the matron at the agency had. “Well, Rozild, if we take you in you’ll learn a good trade and make something of yourself. The Poor Scholars aren’t a workhouse or a charity. No one will force you to do the work. If you don’t do your best, you’re out the door. And if you’re going to be trouble, you aren’t in the door to begin with. Did you steal anything?”
The question was like a slap. “No! Of course not!”
“Don’t lie to me, girl,” she said. “Everyone in service steals something, even if it’s the dinner leftovers.”
That wasn’t fair because the dinner leftovers belonged to the cook, so if she gave them out it wasn’t stealing. I said, “I didn’t wait at table.”
She gave a little humph. “Are you pregnant, girl?”
I felt my face grow hot. Father Mazzu hadn’t said it in as many words. I shook my head and looked down at the floor.
“We’re here to keep girls out of trouble, not pull them up after they’ve fallen. So tell me: why were you dismissed?”
If it had only been Maisetra Nantin I could have made up a story. There are lots of reasons girls get turned off. I could say I was lazy or that I’d been cheeky to the housekeeper. Maisetra Nantin might work me hard for it, but I could make her believe it. But you can’t lie to a priest. I didn’t know if what Nan and I did together would send me to hell, but I knew that lying to a priest would, even if it wasn’t in confession. And I couldn’t…I just couldn’t say it. My tongue stuck in my mouth because I didn’t even know what to say. Not in front of the two of them. All the words I knew for it sounded rude and dirty. The longer I stood there not saying anything, the worse they thought of me and the more I started shaking until there was nothing left to do but turn and run out the door and back into the street. I wasn’t back where I’d begun. Now I couldn’t even go back to Saint Nikule’s tonight.
I walked for a long time after that. I don’t remember how long or where. All I knew was if I stopped walking, I’d freeze. I forgot why it was important not to freeze. Walking made it look like I had somewhere to go. That was important, especially at night. I don’t know if it was one night or two. Probably not three. I don’t think I could have kept going that long. I stole some bread. I think they saw me but didn’t say anything. If I’d been back in Sain-Pol, I’d know how far I walked, but here it was all in circles. I didn’t dare cross the river, though I wouldn’t be noticed as much over there. That was what I was afraid of: something would happen to me and no one would notice. No one would care. But I didn’t dare stray into the upper city, so I kept close to the river.
The next thing I remember clearly was shuffling along a narrow street as dawn turned into real daylight. I was hugging myself and looking for a place to get out of the shadows, but the street was lined with row houses and shops set too close for the sun to get through. I knew I had to move on because the shops might be opening up soon and they were too respectable for someone like me to linger there. The sort of shops where rich folks might come to buy things. I’d been sent to this sort of place on errands for the Fillerts.
Then it hit me that I’d been sent exactly to this place. The bow windows were shuttered and you couldn’t see what was on display, but I recognized the sign above the door: Madame Dominique. I remembered what was behind that door, and it hurt almost worse than being cold and hungry. I’d been sent to the dressmaker’s shop when the maisetra’s gown needed making over and then again when the young maisetras wanted ball gowns in a hurry and the dressmaker needed extra hands for the sewing.
Oh the colors! And the feel of the fine fabrics in my hands! Watching cloth turn into something beautiful, even though I was only doing the plain sewing. All the lace and ribbon and buttons, better than sweets and bonbons. That week had been like being in heaven, and I dreamed that maybe some day I could climb up from washing and mending to that kind of fine sewing. It came back to me now. Now that the dream was farther away than it had ever been.
I was still standing there dreaming when the door opened and a dark-skinned girl came out to fold back the shutters on the front windows. Even if I hadn’t remembered the shop front, I wouldn’t have forgotten Mefro Dominique and her daughter Celeste. You saw a lot of different-looking people in that neighborhood. When I told Nan about Mefro Dominique, she said they were black like that because they came from the Indies and the sun was so hot there it burned you. But that was silly because I knew Celeste grew up here in Rotenek, so why should she be any darker than me?
When I saw Celeste, I thought maybe God had given me one last chance. I grabbed at that chance as hard as I could and called out, “Mefro Celeste!”
She turned and looked me up and down like she didn’t recognize me. Why would she? Someone who looked as cold and ragged as I did now didn’t have any business here.
“Could I—” I could feel my teeth chattering from more than cold. “Could I speak to Mefro Dominique? To your mother?”
“Go round the back,” she said. That and nothing more before she disappeared back inside and closed the door. I remembered Celeste had been sharp-tongued, so it was as good as an invitation.
It took me a bit to figure out how to get to the back door of the shop. The shops and houses all lay cheek-by-jowl along the street and it was a long block. I had to count off doors to the end of the street, then find the back alley and count again to a little gate into a yard barely big enough to turn around in. I knocked on the back door, hoping it was the right one. Celeste answered, looking too self-satisfied for a dressmaker’s daughter. Like there was no reason to send me around the back except because she could.
“Mama!” she called out, looking back over her shoulder. “There’s a girl here wants to talk to you.”
Celeste sounded like Nan, with that sharp, clipped way of talking that most of the working girls had, but Mefro Dominique had a soft rich foreign voice, sort of like tasting honey. She asked what I wanted. I wished she’d send her daughter out of the room. I didn’t want to have to explain everything with Celeste there, looking at me like that. But she listened when I reminded her who I was.
“So, if you are not here on Maisetra Fillert’s business,” Mefro Dominique asked, “what may I do for you?” She said it all polite as if I were a customer and not some girl in dirty clothes begging at the back door.
There wasn’t any point in dancing around with her. I was tired of telling half-truths so I said it plain. “I’ve been let go. I’ve been starving and freezing and I don’t know what to do. I can work. I can sew, plain or fancy, whatever you need. Or I could scrub floors, if that’s what you need. I can cook a little.” It struck me that I hadn’t seen any sign of a housekeeper or maid of all work when I’d been here before. It was a tiny place that wouldn’t need much keeping, but you’d think they’d have someone to come in. “I want to learn to be a dressmaker.”
I heard Celeste make a rude noise, but Mefro Dominique shushed her.
“You wish to learn to be a dressmaker,” Dominique said, looking me up and down again.
“Yes, maisetra,” I said. I didn’t mean to call her that, but it just came out.
She scowled. “Don’t think you can sweet-talk me by ‘maisetra’-ing me.”
It made me wonder, because most of the fancy dressmakers were Maisetra This or Madame That. The shop sign said Madame, but I’d never heard her called anything but Mefro Dominique.
“The thing is impossible.” Her voice was kinder now, but that didn’t help. She held up her hand and ticked off on her fingers. “First, you’re too old. Why, you must be at least seventeen, the same as my Celeste.”
“Sixteen,” I whispered.
“Second, the guild won’t let me take apprentices without a special license. I’m not allowed to join the guild because of being a foreigner. And who would pay your prentice fee?”
I looked down at my feet and felt my face grow hot. I hadn’t known about all that.
“Please,” I begged. “I need to work. I could be your cleaning girl and do sewing too. You wouldn’t have to pay me or teach me.” Maybe dressmaking had been too high a dream, but the kitchen was warm and there was a loaf of fresh bread on the table, and I thought if she threw me out I might as well go straight to the river and drown myself.
“The guild would see a charity girl the same as an apprentice. Why did Maisetra Fillert let you go?” she asked, cutting to the heart of the matter.
Now I really wished Celeste would go away. She’d catch me in a lie even if I could talk round her mother. But she sat there at the table, holding a cup of tea and tearing off small pieces of the loaf to eat as she watched me.
I had to tell the truth this time. “I…” I still didn’t know how to say it. “Someone told the maisetra that my friend Nan and I…that we were doing wicked things together.”
My voice was barely a whisper now. “Wicked things…in bed together.” There. I’d said it and I could see they knew what I meant. I hadn’t said I was wicked. I didn’t think I was wicked. But I hadn’t lied one way or the other. I wanted to beg and plead and promise I’d be good. I was certain Mefro Dominique was going to put me out in the street again.
“When did you say this happened?” Her voice seemed a little softer now.
I tried to count back the days. “I’m not sure. I’ve been walking for days and I don’t think I’ll ever be warm again.”
She pulled out one of the chairs at the table. “Sit here and have a bite while I think what might be done. I’ll set you some work to earn your keep for a few days. Celeste, would you take up some hot water for washing and fetch our guest a nightgown.”
Celeste gave me another one of her sharp looks, but she filled a pitcher from the kettle on the stove and disappeared into another room.
“Now listen close, child,” Mefro Dominique said and took me by the shoulders so I had no choice but to look her in the face. “It’s not my business what you did in that other house, but it’s my business what you do in mine. My Celeste has a hard enough life before her without any nonsense like you’ve been up to. So you let her alone, do you hear me?”
I nodded quick as I could. Then I spoiled it by yawning. Celeste came back and I tried to stand up, but my legs wobbled like a newborn calf’s.
“Celeste, help her upstairs and put her to bed.”
Without a word, Celeste grabbed my hand and pulled me toward the back stairs and slowly up into the room over the shop. I was limping now and shaking.
Celeste pulled at the sleeve of my dress. “Take off those filthy clothes.”
While I got undressed, she poured out some warm wash water into a bowl, then gave a low whistle as she handed me a wet cloth.
“Who did that do you?”
My leg was all purple and bruised. I tried to remember how it happened, stumbling around in the dark streets.
She frowned and some of the bossiness fell away. “Want me to do something about it?”
I dabbed at the dirt over the bruise with the washing cloth and winced.
“You’re going to have to do better than that before I let you touch my sheets,” she said, all bossy again. There was only the one bed, and I know it must be the one she shared with her mother.
“What do you mean ‘do something’?” I gritted my teeth and washed myself as clean as I could, then slipped on Celeste’s second-best nightgown.
“I’ve got a charm for bruises. I got it from Nana Charl. It’s a good one.”
“You can’t be a charmwife,” I said. “You aren’t old enough.” I didn’t mean household charms like what Aunt Gaita taught me, but a real charmwife.
Now that I was starting to warm up, my leg was aching something fierce. “I can’t pay.”
“If I offered, it’s no charge. You only have to pay if you ask first.” She said it like it was a law or something. That wasn’t how the charmwives around Sain-Pol worked, but maybe Rotenek was different. Celeste went and pulled out a small wooden chest from under a table by the window. There was an erteskir—a little private shrine—set up on the table with holy pictures and a candle that she lit with a spill from the fireplace. The chest was filled with the usual sort of things charmwives sold in the market: little scraps of parchment with writing on them, bits and bobs, jars of herbs and things.
“You sit quiet and let me work.”
I pulled up the hem of the nightgown so my leg was bare and sat on the edge of the bed. By the light of the candle I could make out the pictures on her shrine: Mary and the Christ Child were in the middle and on one side there was Saint Mauriz with his spear and armor. I couldn’t make out the other part. Celeste took out a bit of paper—ordinary paper, not the stiff slips of parchment I’d seen—and started drawing signs and words on it while she said things quietly. They sounded like prayers, but not the ones I knew. She waved the little bit of paper until it was dry, then rummaged in another drawer for a red rag.
“Turn this way so I can see,” she ordered. She lay the charm against the middle of the bruise and started repeating the prayers she’d said before. Three times, for each, that was the usual way of it except when it was nine.
I tried not to squirm. Sometimes charmwork gave me that warm feeling that made me want to touch myself—or to have Nan touch me. I remembered what Mefro Dominique had said and didn’t want Celeste carrying tales. So I said the Ave Maria to myself while she worked to keep my mind on proper things and not on Celeste’s hands on my leg as she passed the cloth around to hold the charm in place and tied it up tight.
“There,” she said as she finished the knot. “See if it’s better when you wake up.”
I thought I could feel it working, but maybe I was just that tired that I couldn’t feel the ache any more. I wanted to ask Celeste who she’d learned her charms from and how long it took to learn and what else she knew, but as soon as I was underneath the covers I was asleep.
I had strange dreams. Celeste was winding me up in a cloth, but it was a shroud, not a bandage. I wanted to shout, “I’m not dead! I’m not dead!” But all she said was “Stop squirming,” in my mother’s voice. As she kept wrapping me up, I got a heavy ache in my belly, the way I sometimes do right before I start bleeding, and I worried that I’d get stains all over Mefro Dominique’s sheets and the borrowed nightgown and that Celeste would kill me. But when I woke I was tangled in the sheets, that was all.
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