He watched her leave, walking down through the garden rather than towards the main house entrance. That’s right, she lived in that strange village at the bottom of the cliff, the place Xavier was staying.
He wondered what it was like to live in a place that had seemingly jumped out of the pages of his favourite childhood storybook. Could he visit? He blew out a breath. Of course he could. But the visit would be that of the Prince, or the Governor, inspecting the residences on his land; not Andreas exploring.
He sighed and went to retrieve the quarterstaff. Mistress Helden had undone all the good of Leila’s song.
Some time later, he returned the staff to the cupboard it had been stored in and looked for something else to practice with. He was reaching for a longsword when a sound in the corridor made him turn.
His valet, Jorge was there, looking awkward and unhappy. “You’ve been out here for hours, it’s past midnight.”
“I am trying to wear myself out enough to sleep without waking the entire household when the nightmares hit. Or have you forgotten how much fun that was?”
“You haven’t had nightmares in months.”
“Until Raoul convinced the Council to make me the new Governor of Port Watch and returned me to my own personal hell, just for the fun of it.”
Andreas gestured to himself. “Past midnight and I’m trying to work myself to a level of exhaustion where I simply pass out and don’t remember the first time I passed through these streets, don’t remember jumping and stumbling over the bodies of my comrades, my enemies, and innocent citizens.”
Jorge mumbled something that was probably meant to be reassuring or supportive. Andreas ambled around the courtyard, absently swinging the sword in one hand. “Every time I walk or ride through the first market square in the lower town, I see a little girl, younger than Raoul was when Julia and I were sent for training, silently lying in a pool of her own blood, a woman screaming and wailing over her as a figure behind swings a blade, silencing her as well.”
He came to a stop in front of the entrance to the gardens, looking out on the moon-bathed paths and bushes. “You might know the spot, it’s a darker-coloured patch of stones all the horses avoid.”
It was another hour at least before he finally stumbled to bed.
Leila hurried from the courtyard, trying not to breathe, or think about exactly what was soaking through the front of her bodice.
The guards at the gate looked around as she approached, and one asked. “Why the hurry, Mistress?”
Leila grimaced and lifted Perran a little. “He had an accident, it stinks.”
Their suspicion turned to curiosity as they saw what she held, then grimaces as the smell hit them. She was waved through with a ‘good luck Mistress’ from one and a ‘my wife swears by vinegar on our toddler’s accidents’ from the other.
Did she have vinegar at home?
She did, thank goodness. She bundled the sleepy gryphonling into a spare market basket, lined with an old, soft towel and stripped off her bodice.
She grumbled to it as she washed. “You’re lucky I have a spare dress you know, or we would have been completely housebound tomorrow. As it is, I’m barely going to have any sleep before I have to get up.”
She paused. She didn’t have to get up, there was no job for her to get up for. Biting her lip, she continued with her washing.
She straightened with a groan. “That’s the worst of it I think. We can try again in the morning. And I’ll have to work out what to do with you in the morning as well.”
Perran yawned, turned over, and went back to sleep.
Leila went to bed as well, although sleep was a long time coming and she woke early. As she re-rinsed the bodice and wondered what to do about Perran’s breakfast, there was a knock on her front door.
Thomas was there with a freshly caught and gutted fish. “Mother Eulogia stopped by yesterday. Fisher’s promised one of these each morning if you could see fit to weave her up a scarf for the colder days.”
Leila took it with a smile of relief. “Of course, I’d be happy to. Do you know if there are colours she prefers?”
Thomas looked blank. “She’s a Fisher, so probably sea shades.”
He paused and shuffled a little on the step. “It’s an imposition, but, would I be able to see the little creature?”
Leila stood back. “Come in. He’s being a lazybones, doesn’t want to get out of bed.”
Thomas tiptoed through the door, Leila tried not to giggle at the sight of the burly man trying to be small and unobtrusive.
Leila looked at the fish, then found a wide, flat dish and placed the fish on it, then put it down near the front door. Thomas stared as she scooped Perran out of his basket, and set him on the floor next to the plate.
“It’s so small.”
Leila hummed agreement as she watched the gryphonling transform from dozy bundle to ravenous predator in the sniff of a beak.
Thomas grunted. “Wouldn’t want to get in the way of it though. Fair fierce for a young ‘un.”
She added a dish of water to sit beside the food. “Fierce and messy.”
Perran set about proving her right, scattering bits of fish on the floor around the plate before enthusiastically attacking the water. He stepped back, a focused look in his fire-coloured eyes. Leila swooped in. “Oh no, not inside.”
She hurried through the door, holding the squawking kit well away from the front of her dress. She deposited him in a sandy corner of the garden. “You can do your business here. Nowhere else.”
Perran glared. Leila glared back. It seemed to work, this time at least.
Thomas had followed her out and left with a chuckle, promising another fish the next day. “Although I may find myself fighting for the privilege of delivering it to your little warrior.”
Her little warrior was exploring the garden, so Leila set herself up for a laundry morning on the sunny stone terrace at the front of the cottage. By the time Marya appeared at the gate in the middle of the afternoon, the only items Leila hadn’t washed were the clothes she was wearing and her unfinished weavings.
She waved as she folded the clean, dry items from the first wash, and Marya moved to join her, then stopped, mouth agape as the sleepy black ball of fluff at Leila’s side morphed into a razor-beaked ball of attitude. It stretched, hissed, and stalked off to his patch of sand.
Marya shook herself, then sat on the edge of the terrace, near Leila’s basket of clothes and began folding its contents as well. “This morning’s stories aren’t quite as far-fetched as I thought they were. What on sea and soil happened yesterday?”
Leila rubbed her forehead. “Where do I start?”
Marya smiled. “Start in the middle and muddle your way out. I’ll keep track.”
Once Leila had finished, Marya nodded. “So you have a gryphonling named after a mythical dog, not a demon creature out to raze the Governor’s House; your hands were a mess from knotting rope, not cleaning the Prince’s kitchen; and Miklos and Bianca have handed you over to Mistress Weaver, rather than slamming the shop door in your face.”
Leila blinked, absently scratching Perran’s neck when he clawed his way onto her lap. “Yes.”
Marya chuckled. “If I can’t be the first with the news, I like to be first with the truth. What time does the Prince want you to sing for him tonight?”
Leila stood, setting Perran aside. “I need to put these things away and go. It’s easier to be there before dark.”
Her friend helped her tidy the laundry away, then gather loom, thread bag, sleeping basket and gryphonling. Then waved her off as Leila started the walk up the hill.
The guards at the gate had clearly been told of the previous evening’s incident and asked politely after both the gryphonling and her dress. Perran snapped his beak at them, then sulked when they chuckled.
She stumbled to a halt when she reached the side entrance to the courtyard. It was set up as if for a concert, with rows of chairs set out, all facing the summer house. Mistress Helden was directing the placement of the last few and turned with an acid smile as Leila gaped.
“If His Highness is going to persist in this idiotic music obsession, you will be performing properly. You can still do your silly weaving, but you will be out here, where people can keep an eye on you.”
The older woman’s eyes moved to Perran. “And that will be locked away in one of the storage rooms until you leave.”
Leila’s arms tensed around Perran’s fragile form. “No.”
She firmed her shoulders. “I said no. Perran will be staying with me, and I will stay inside the summer house.”
Mistress Helden sneered. “And if the Prince wishes otherwise?”
Leila swallowed, then replied. “Then I will not sing.”
The housekeeper strode towards her, face purple and furious. Behind her, Leila saw the two men who’d been setting out the chairs whisper together, then scurry off towards the front of the house.
“You are here on my sufferance and I will not have my household bent to the wills and whims of some greedy, presumptuous little sandworm. You will follow my orders, or I’ll have you shipped back to the filthy desert you came from.”
Leila’s jaw dropped. “What did you say?”
Mistress Helden said. “You heard me. I know what you are. I can have the Sun Priests here in a snapping, to take you back to face your sins.”
The blood drained from Leila’s face, her chest tightening until she was fighting for every breath. “You have no idea what drove me here.”
“I can guess, a sly little thing like you. I’m sure they’ll be only too happy to have you returned.”
She was going to be sick. She had to stay strong. In her arms, Perran screeched, and she gathered him closer, protecting him from the woman’s poison. She would not go back.
A voice sounded from the archway to the house. “Is there a problem?”
The Prince stepped into view, followed by Xavier.
Mistress Helden turned towards him. “This little trollop is refusing to perform for you this evening, Your Highness. She needs to learn the consequences of disobedience.”
Andreas prowled towards them. He looked like a full gryphon, stalking its prey across the desert sands. “And yet, Mistress, the only evidence I see of disobedience is yours.”
He looked at Leila. “What was she threatening you with?”
Leila bit her lip. “Sending me back to Carra, to the Sun Temple.”
Andreas frowned, pacing in front of them, hands clasped behind his back. “And this is not something you wish.”
Leila lifted her chin. “I left Carra for a reason, I have no desire to return.”
Mistress Helden snorted. “Avoiding punishment for some crime or other. You should never have been allowed to set foot in Port Watch.”
He stopped pacing and looked at the two women thoughtfully, then sighed and shook his head. “Mistress Helden, I apologise. I am not the right person for you to work for. Our views and preferences are too different. You will receive a generous retirement stipend along with apartments in one of the royal residences outside the capital. You may take this evening and tomorrow to pack.”
The housekeeper choked. “But, you can’t… this is my home.”
Andreas tilted his head. “Just as it is Mistress Leila’s and yet you’re happy enough for her to be removed.”
Xavier coughed a word that may have been ‘consequences’, then returned to impassivity.
Mistress Helden drew herself upright. “Since you are too ignorant to understand how a Governor should conduct himself, and too arrogant to learn from those who know, very well. I wash my hands of you.”
She turned and stalked off.
Leila watched her go with wide eyes, barely registering Perran’s satisfied growl at routing the shouty creature.
Xavier stepped up beside Andreas, both of them watching the Mistress Helden leave. “Now what?”
Andreas sighed. “Now we put all these chairs away before this evening’s hordes arrive and put the word out that we’re looking for a new housekeeper.”
Xavier turned his worried face to Leila. “But what about until then? The staff here are not good without direction.”
Leila stared back. “Maybe Juanita could take an evening away from the inn?”
Xavier brightened, and looked to Andreas, who waved a hand. “Do whatever you think necessary. And while you’re down the Hill, find a ship to put the old cat on.”