Andreas stood at the entrance of the wide room, greeting his guests. Xavier said Leila was in the summer house, but lacked her loom. Could she sing without her weaving tools? Should he send someone to collect them?
As if she had heard his thoughts, the first threads of a working song, the type used to haul up sails or dig ditches, came dancing across the courtyard. He held in a smile as the warmth grew in his chest. How could such a rough and ready song sound so free and joyous?
During diner, Andreas recalled the other matter Xavier had mentioned. He beckoned to a server. “Has the singer any food or drink?”
The young woman shot a scared side glance at Mistress Helden, who was supervising the change of platters, then replied. “Not yet, Sir, though it has been mentioned.”
Andreas raised a brow, what had the bad-tempered battle-axe of a housekeeper done now? If she wasn’t so difficult to replace, he’d have had her pensioned off or reassigned within a week of his arrival.
He returned his attention to the maid. “Please see to it she is provided with a good dinner now.”
The maid was surprised enough to respond. “Now, Sir?”
“Now.” He waved a hand. Make up a platter from what we have here and take it to her with something to drink.”
Mistress Helden cleared her throat. “There’s no need for such disruption, Your Highness. I’ll see to it she’s delivered something from the kitchens shortly.”
Andreas’s smile bared his teeth. “And yet there is food here, now, ready to be eaten. It’s closer and less of a disruption than your suggestion.”
The woman frowned. Andreas stared her down. “Now.”
The maid shot a nervous look between the two of them, then collected a clean plate from the sideboard and began putting food onto it.
Mistress Helden gritted her teeth. “Nothing too fancy, a peasant won’t appreciate, or indeed be able to stomach, high quality food.”
The entire table stopped their conversations and turned to stare at the housekeeper.
Mistress Mivart said. “And yet I seem capable of both appreciating and stomaching everything you’ve served tonight, Mistress. Or did you forget I’m the daughter of fishers and farmers?”
Mistress Helden’s face went purple. She bobbed a curtsey and babbled something that might have been an apology. Mistress Mivart sniffed and turned her back.
The maid used the distraction to gather the plate and a jug of cool water and scurry across the courtyard. The singing squeaked to a halt and faint murmurs of conversation reached the table.
The maid reappeared and curtseyed to Andreas. “Mistress Leila sends her thanks and will resume her song as soon as she is refreshed.”
Andreas nodded and the maid returned to her previous duties with only a couple of worried looks at the still fuming housekeeper.
The singing resumed a short while later, the songs softer and quieter now, as if the singer was tired and looking forward to sleep.
At the end of the dinner, as the guests left, Mistress Mivart levelled a stern look at Andreas as she came out of her curtsey. “Now you’ve paraded that girl in front of most of the Hill, and shown you intend to continue to do so, you do realise she won’t be able to keep her job.”
Andreas swallowed. No, he hadn’t realised. He hadn’t thought of anything past her voice. He probably should take umbrage at being scolded like a boy, but Mistress Mivart was right, and he should be grateful she felt bold enough to raise the issue with him.
He bowed. “I’ll ensure she’s not left without employment, Mistress.”
The older woman humphed, nodded, and left.
The sounds from across the courtyard quieted, then voices were raised in farewell. Leila allowed her song to die away and slumped in her seat. She was so tired.
The helpful maid poked her head in the door. “They’re going now, so you can too. Probably best to make scarce before the old cat comes screeching.”
Leila smiled her thanks. She stood and stretched, grimacing as her hands protested the harsh work they’d been put to. The hard cords and bristly rope had rubbed and abraded skin that had only worked with soft linens, silks and wools for years. She hoped a few hours’ rest would ease the worst of the ache.
She said. “I left my bag of yarns here yesterday. Do you know where they’ve been put? I would like to be able to do my own work on other evenings.”
Her answer was a grimace. “I’ll see what I can find. The old cat likely grabbed them.”
Leila rubbed a hand over her face. “I can ask Xavier if it’s going to make your life difficult.”
The maid looked in the direction of the house, mostly hidden behind lattice, then back at Leila. “It might be best. He’s more likely to get them than me.”
Leila nodded and slowly made her way out of the summer house and began walking down the winding garden path to home.
Xavier caught up with her just after the guarded gate. “You should wait for me in future, it’s not right for a lady to be left to walk home alone.”
Leila replied. “It’s kind of you, but we’re within the Governor’s estate, I’m safe enough. Your job is to look after the Prince, not me.”
“He wishes me to ensure your wellbeing.”
Leila tried not to choke on that. The smoke from the tallow candles was still catching at the back of her throat and she was tired and sore.
She debated how to ask for her yarns. Xavier beat her to it, handing her the shapeless cloth bag. “Mistress Helden said you left this behind yesterday and you might be wanting it.”
She took it. “Please thank her for me, I was worried.”
He nodded, then asked. “Were the weaving supplies suitable? It may be better to simply use what the household has, rather than trying to be carrying all your odds and ends about with you.”
She rubbed her eyes. “I’d rather have my own things, thank you all the same.”
Xavier dug into a pocket. “I forgot. His Highness said we were to pay you for the past two nights, and he’ll pay you weekly from now on if that is suitable.”
He dumped a handful of coins into her hand, impossible to say what they were in the shifting dimness of the moon’s light. She scrabbled to hold them and ended up emptying the pile into the yarn bag and hoping she hadn’t dropped any.
“How often does he wish me to sing, and when will I know what nights?”
Xavier frowned at her. “He wants you to sing for him every night.”
“What about when he’s out at parties?”
Xavier’s head dropped. “He’d like you to sing once he returns.”
She wanted to cry. “That’s very late. What about my work?”
His shoulders hunched. “I think he wants this to become your work.”
They reached her front gate. She stepped through it and closed it behind her, shutting out Xavier, and the world, and inconsiderate, demanding princes. “I’ll have to think about it.”
He half-moved towards her, then stopped. “It is your decision, Mistress. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
She sighed. “Apparently so. Goodnight.”
She woke with red, blistered hands that complained at every movement of her fingers and heavy eyes that did not want to face the day.
Miklos took one look at her when she arrived and shook his head, then called through the door into their house. “You were right. What do you want to do?”
Bianca came through and ran a stern but sympathetic eye over Leila’s slumped form and said. “I understand the tiredness but what on all the shifting seas have you done to your hands?”
Leila opened them, palms up, and looked them over. They were even worse than before. “I didn’t have my loom and the only thing Mistress Helden had available for me to weave was an old bundle of ropes.”
She dropped her head. “The mat I made isn’t even very good.”
What a stupid thing to want to cry over.
Bianca sighed. “Well, you can’t be handling fabrics with them like that, and you’re drooping like an un-watered lily. Are you going to be awake enough to advise on thread matches and trims for the tailors this morning?”
Leila shook her shoulders back and stood straight. “Yes Mistress. And I’ll be careful to not touch anything.”
Miklos and Bianca looked at each other, then back at her. Miklos spoke. “Well then, let’s see what we can manage this morning. This afternoon, I’d like to take you to meet Bianca’s mother.”
Leila frowned, looking between the two of them. What had brought this on?
Bianca smiled, and reached back without looking to scoop up little Nana who had ambled into the shop and was eyeing the bright colours with a covetous gaze.
As she bounced the grumbling child on one hip, she said. “My mother is a master weaver and well past due an apprentice. You’re likely to fit better with her, both in hours and in quiet surrounds, given the state of things.”
Miklos added. “We know you’re well past apprenticing, but she’s intrigued by what she’s heard of you, and that’s more than we’ve managed for any suggested helper before. It would be a boon to us, and her weaving is quite different to what comes out of Carra. If you’re willing, the children and I will take you to see her after lunch.”