A preview of an upcoming Novel I plan to publish late spring 2013.
She rested her cheek on the cool window pane. “Where am I?”The window fogged as she exhaled and crackled underneath as if in response to her query. She stepped back and stared in horror, as the glass came alive, rippling shapes formed and spread out. Soon a field of colorless clovers filled the window pane with a larger one in the center. Except this clover had seven leaves, causing her to study it in wonder.
She reached forward to touch a leaf as another hand came toward her from the opposite side of the window. At the moment their hands met, the glass shattered. With arms up as a pitiful shield, she screamed until her throat felt raw. Heart pounding, she collapsed and her knees hit the floor.
She huddled in a ball on the wood floor until silence permeated the room once again, then checked her arms, expecting blood, but found not even a scratch. A gasp escaped her when she glanced up and saw the window whole. Not a crack or a trace of strange shapes in the smooth, grimy glass. She searched the floor for shards but there were none. “What…?”
KATHAIR. “No,” she whispered. “Nobody else is here. Who could be calling me?”
KAAAAAATT. The voice insisted.
With trembling limbs she stood up and walked back to the couch and sat with her knees pulled into her chest. “This is a dream. I’ll wake up soon.”
The urgency in the voice startled her and she jumped off the couch. “No, I don’t belong to anyone. Please.”
KATHAIR, YOU ARE MINE! YOU MADE YOUR DECISION.
She released a strangled cry as her feet moved against her will. She shuffled out the door and stepped into the morning air. Her footfalls echoed as she trudged down the three rotten, wood steps that separated the shack from the small patch of mud that served as a yard.
The rain had tapered off to a misty drizzle, but the sound of rushing water roared nearby. She trudged through the muck. The suction pulling at her shoes with each step as she went to peer around the side of the building.
“Oh, god, no!” Her heart lurched at the terror racing down the mountains surrounding the valley. Now split open and releasing oceans of water. Violent waves crashed along the landscape and raced forward. She glanced around for an escape route, but the flood rushed in from all sides.
The deafening roar enhanced the panic building within, yet rendered her screams silent. Muddy waves broke and engulfed her, lifting her off the ground.
Her arms and legs wheeled in an attempt to swim against the current. Her eyes stung as she tried to focus in the murky water, looking for light or any clue leading to the surface. The pressure was crushing and her lungs burned with the need for air.
She let out a watery scream as a dark shape move nearby. By reflex her lungs expanded to bring in oxygen and filled with water. Her sinuses burned and her body relaxed. Weakened and sleepy she lost the will to fight.
The shape moved closer and reached out a hand. Etched in the palm was the same seven leaf clover from her earlier vision. Using the last of her energy, she reached out and accepted the salvation it offered. Fingers bit into her wrist and yanked her forward. The water cleared and she caught a glimpse of the person who held her. A malicious smile spread across his face as she lost consciousness.
Kathair’s scream came out as little more than a gasp and she sat straight up in bed. For a terrible moment the familiar dorm wavered as if underwater. When the last wisps of sleep had left, she discerned the sleeping forms of the other girls in their beds.
She turned to the side and jumped. “Shit…” Narrow eyes gleamed in the faint light staring back at Kathair. “Oh, hell Prudence you scared me,” she drew in a deep, calming breath.
“Another one, Kat?” Prudence yawned from under the pile of blankets.
“Yes.” She hoped the short answer would put an end to any further questions.
Prudence stretched, threw the covers back and padded lithely over to the wood burning stove in the center of the room to stoke the fire, filling the room with a smoky wood scent.
Kathair watched her slender frame in the firelight and felt a stab of guilt for shutting her out. She loved Prudence, but as the nightmares grew more frequent and vivid, she increased her distance from everyone and everything.
Prudence returned to her bed. “Want to talk?”
“No point. It’s always the same dream.” Kathair lay back on her pillow and pulled the blanket up to her chin. The scratchy, gray wool comforting in its familiarity.
“What can I say; I must live vicariously through you.” Prudence gave a rueful smile. “Please share it with me.”
Kathair closed her eyes and sighed. It didn’t seem right that she married instead of Prudence, who was exotic and alluring. With her olive skin and soft, straight hair, she was a stark contrast to Kathair’s dark curls and freckles. Far more lovely in Kathair’s opinion. It seemed unfair that the goddess, Minato, made some people so unique and her so boring.
“Tomorrow is Connubial Mass,” Prudence alluded to the fact that Kat was seventeen years old and of a marriageable age.
Kathair turned away, throwing the blanket over her head. “I’m tired. Go to sleep, Prudence.” She knew her worries concerning mass contributed to the increased intensity of her nightmares, but there was more to it. And she was at a loss for words or the ability to reach deep enough within herself figure to it out. The dreams felt more like memories.
Thoughts plagued and conflicted within her due to the fate tomorrow held. Connubial Mass was a glorified auction block. A performance for the talent show, while forced to strut across the stage half-naked, displayed for purchase by a nobleman to be his wife. Born to be a slave, this is my last night of freedom. Most women in Fayodale were able to go to Mass with a man they loved and chose, except for those sent to the theater. The nobility relished in putting them on stage like chattel and making a show of it.
The bed creaked and Prudence sighed as she rolled over to go back to sleep. The room plunged back into silence except for the soft breathing of sleeping girls and the crackling of the fire. Resentment filled Kathair; Prudence would never be forced to marry. She was too low-born to go to Mass. Her parents were farmers and she chose life at the theater when they passed away. She earned room and board, but never a coin to save for Mass. Now a twenty year old lifer, she’d remain here until age no longer allowed her to take the stage. Then she’d become a dorm mother and care for the next generation of actresses.
Ambivalent tears stung Kathair’s eyes. She reflected on when she first met Prudence a year ago. She had no memories of her life beyond the days before arriving to this building. A priest of Minato had informed her that she’d fallen into the Morzsuur River. The vast river ran through Fayodale and cascaded over the cliffs behind the palace. The priest rescued her before she drowned and cared for her until he located her parents. Those days were a hazed memory, shadows and impressions were all she could remember.
Once identified, she moved to the theater to perform and prepare for marriage. Her parents’ visits were rare, detached and awkward. Prudence stepped in, comforted and taught her what she needed to know. Just when life feels normal and safe, now I have to leave. Prudence took me into her care and I have no way to repay her.
The lights flickered three times, a signal for the actresses to take their places. They exited the many small dressing rooms as Stroud strode into the hallway. A short, plump man, known for his gentle manner, and labeled as the best director to have graced the passages of the Fayodale Theater. He breezed through the crowd in his typical flamboyant fashion and placed a kiss on each girl for luck. If it weren’t for his well known preference for men, the girls might feel awkward with his touchiness. Instead it created a family atmosphere many seemed to lack otherwise.
Behind him, two Royal Guards escorted a semi-conscious man dressed in typical tan prison garb. The soldiers in the stark gray uniforms disturbed Kathair. They repulsed her more within the theater as opposed to when patrolling the streets of Fayodale. Outside, they were a symbol of security; here they symbolized torture and death. She could forgive them if they showed any emotion. However, they worked with cool, inhumane precision.
The girls lined up along the cold, narrow hallway before the guards for the pre-show inspection. The highest ranking guard, as noted by the bronze crown emblem embroidered on his chest, paced before them. Those soldiers on execution duty were ranked in order from red, black and bronze crown. The lower ranks of green and blue had the lesser duties in Fayodale. The Royal Elite ranked silver, gold and platinum performed their duties in the palace, with platinum serving as the Royal family’s private guard. Mr. Bronze, as she thought of him let his eyes crawl over their faces and bodies. Loathing filled her as he stopped and leered at her. “This is the lover.”
He pointed at Prudence. “She will portray the prisoner.” With one look at the man in chains, Kathair knew why they chose Prudence for the part. He had the same rare, dark skin tone. The guard tossed a file to the director and spun around to lead the captive to a small room near the stage entrance. The girls called it the holding room of pleasure and pain. It was regularly stocked with food and refreshments for the guards and occasionally a female to play with if requested. There was always a few girls willing if the men were appealing. Here he’d stay bound, until making his debut onstage to die, while his guard practiced debauchery in any form they wished.
The two chosen girls looked at each other as the rest of the cast chattered and got ready for the show. Kathair stood in a surreal stupor as the room filled with giggles and useless banter, regardless of the man to be murdered onstage tonight.
Prudence put an arm around her shoulders as the chaos grew louder. “I suppose some people get used to this.” She gestured at the girls around them and spoke in a low voice. “Be thankful tonight is your last execution. You’d never grow accustomed to this.”
Stroud glanced at the papers in the file and handed them over to the girls. It contained testimony against the prisoner, Gradyl. He was guilty of having a sexual relationship with a young lady named Helena, daughter of an Earl, far above his station in society. After they reviewed the short synopsis, they passed the file on for others to read. The show followed a set routine and they improvised according to the information provided in these files. To Kat it helped to know the person had committed terrible crimes, but this time the punishment seemed extreme for the offense. Gradyl faced execution for falling in love with the wrong person. As if sensing her unease, the director took her hand in both of his giant, knobby fingered palms, kissed her knuckles and cupped her cheek. “Cheer up, Kit Kat; it’s just a show, right?” He winked, raised his arms over his head and addressed the entire cast. “Break a leg, my beauties.”
The lights dimmed, leaving enough illumination to walk without tripping over anything, as Kathair whispered, “It’s just a show.” A crash sounded from the room that held the prisoner. She repeated the mantra a little louder and slipped into pale, flesh colored pants and a matching camisole. Then pulled a plain, gray hooded robe over her outfit. With several girls dressed the same she went on stage and performed a dark, interpretive dance. The music enveloped her as they got lost in grand arm sweeps and twirls. They shed their robes, allowing them to pool at their feet, as black ribbons fell from the rafters and each of them grabbed one. With a running start each girl took off into the air, climbing higher up and spinning in synchronized movements. The music grew to a crescendo and they lowered back to the ground grouped together. Then circled in a tight spinning formation until they lay on the stage floor. The curtains closed as the audience applauded. Euphoria surged through the girls. The dance was newly choreographed from a joint effort and they reveled in the apparent success and appreciation of the audience.
On the way to the dressing room for a costume change Kathair caught a glimpse of Gradyl slumped over in a chair. His head lolled and his eyes struggled to focus. He’s fighting the sedation.
He glanced at her for a mere second and moaned. “Please…”
She had witnessed many executions, but never had a prisoner acknowledged or spoken to her. The sight of the pathetic man soon to taste death weighed heavily on her conscience.
A guard stepped into view of the doorway, glared and slammed the door shut. Just then a hand landed on her shoulder. She spun around and cried out seeing the prisoner now stood in the darkened corridor behind her. She soon realized it was Prudence in costume. “Claurel’s skill with make-up never ceases to amaze me. I thought you were Gradyl.” She put her hand on her chest willing her heart to slow its erratic pattern.
Prudence shook her head and led her away from the door. “Never mind him, focus on the job at hand. I need to get onstage; please don’t make me worry when I should concentrate on my part.” She turned to head out with another girl and began the show.
The act opened with a scene of sweet courtship that ended with a peasant’s marriage ceremony. In time, the couple desired a child but did not have the tribute necessary to offer to the goddess Minato since they had spent their life savings on the tribute for Mass. Therefore, they sold themselves as indentured servants to a nobleman in exchange for the money. Within a few short years the wife tragically died during a plague that struck down many of Fayodale females. The full debt and raising their child fell on his shoulders alone.
The man fell in love again a couple years later. Unfortunately the young lady was his masters’ daughter. The lovers were discovered and the King sentenced him to death by hanging.
Kathair playing the part of his lover clung to Prudence and moved toward the gallows. Once they reached the stairs at the rear of the stage and out of sight of the audience, they brought the real prisoner out. The drugs had worn off and he fought to free himself despite having his hands tied behind his back. A guard hit him upside the head with a club. His legs dropped out from under him and two guards each grabbed an arm and pulled him up the stairs.
The audience that had been sedate up to this point jumped out of their seats. The atmosphere charged with violence as the prisoner stepped into view. Boos and jeers rang out against him as the guards moved to place the noose around his neck. Blood trickled from the blow he had received and dripped from his brow, further inciting the crowd into a frenzy.
In the front row Kathair spotted a young woman strapped to a seat. The man’s lover; receiving her punishment for daring to defy the law of society and taking a companion of low status. For her sins she’d watch this man forfeit his life. A guard sat on either side of her, the one on her left placed a hand on her forehead. The other under her chin and whispered in her ear. She kept her eyelids squeezed shut and shook with sobs. The first guard was less patient and pulled out a knife. The terrified woman opened her eyes as the blade touched her throat. Kathair hated them even more for forcing the girl to witness her lover’s execution.
The lovers stared at each other, then Gradyl resumed fighting and the woman wept as the guards continued to beat him. The man with the knife pressed it tighter against her skin and drew a faint line of blood.
On the gallows the man witnessed her struggle and gave up fighting for his life. His eyes met with hers once more and he mouthed the words “I love you” as the rope tightened around his neck. The woman watched as they pulled the lever, releasing the platform from under his feet. Her shrieks and the sound of his neck snapping chilled Kathair’s blood.
The scene ended and Kathair sank to the floor. She could no longer bear looking at devastation on the poor girl’s face. With her palms pressed over her ears to drown out the cries, she rested her forehead on the rough floorboards. The curtains closed and gut-wrenching sobs wracked through her. She wept for the lifeless body dangling above, for the distraught woman in the audience and for another sense of unknown loss. Something just at the edge of her memory that she couldn’t grasp.
Prudence came out and knelt beside her. Stroking her hair and waiting until her cries subsided. Kathair allowed her friend to play the role of big sister and comforter for a few minutes, then took a deep breath and stood. “Come on, let’s get changed.” She wiped the last of her tears away. “We have a gala to attend.”
“Here take a nip of this,” Prudence pulled a flask from the holster on her thigh. Kathair hated alcohol and refused every time she was offered any. Prudence stood behind her with a hand on her shoulder, the other holding the flask. This time she snatched the drink and gulped half of the intoxicating brew before her friend stopped her. She welcomed the burning sensation in her throat and chest, hoping for numbness to soon follow.
“You know,” Prudence capped the flask and set it in on the dressing room table. “Even if you pass out on stage someone is apt to buy such a beauty as yourself.” She tucked a dark curl behind Kathair’s ear and put her arms around her. “I’ll miss you.”
“Don’t…” Prudence interrupted. “Don’t promise me that. I’ve heard it too many times in the years since I’ve been here and have experienced much disappointment. Go with my love in your heart and don’t forget me. That's all I ask.” She turned away, shoulders slumped.
Guilt needled at her for the bitterness she had experienced the night before toward her friend. She hadn’t considered the hurt Prudence must suffer to have her friends always leave and realized she had no more freedom than those forced to marry. Fated to die alone, a spinster.
Kathair sighed as she pulled on her skirt and buttoned her blouse up the side from the waist up to under her left arm. For a finishing touch she put on arm bands, frilled with green satin that rested just above her elbows yet below the sleeves of her top. A useless accessory, but Kat felt like being frivolous tonight.
“Kat?” A tap on the door accompanied the call of her name.
“Come in.” She found it unusual to have a visitor in the dressing room.
The director entered, walked over to Kathair and took her hand. “You’ve been a wonderful actress for our theater and you’ll be missed.” Reaching insidehisa vest pocket he pulled out a small piece of purple cloth and placed it in her palm. “From an admirer. He requested you wear this tonight.”
After he left the room she unfolded the silky fabric to reveal a silver comb in the shape of a seven leafed clover. Her fingers shook and she almost dropped the gift.
“This shape,” she stared at the item. “It was in my dream… what does it mean?”
“I don’t know, but it’s magnificent.” Prudence peered over her shoulder. “Here let me help you.” She piled Kathair’s hair in a loose bun and fastened it with the comb.
Kathair walked over to the vanity, stared at her reflection for a moment then picked up the flask. Taking one more giant swallow and slamming it back on the table.
Prudence chuckled. “My sweet, the drink has given you a nice blush. But try not to fall over, alright?” She opened the door and led the way to the pre-connubial gala.
For the first time, the girls had separate roles for the gala. Prudence served drinks to the gentlemen while Kathair and the other girls going to mass entertained them. The girls danced with any gentleman who asked and made pleasant conversation.
A sudden shyness overcame her and she fell back against a nearby wall. My life’s been on stage, but now I want to hide from the world. I’m not ready for this. She prayed to the goddess that no-one would take notice of her. While her knees shook and the room spun from the alcohol taking effect.
“May I have this dance?” So much for prayers. The man hadn’t asked but demanded. She looked at the man who had spoken. A bit taller than her, with long blonde hair pulled back in a black satin ribbon, he was handsome. Yet, his eyes sparkled with a mischief that made her apprehensive.
With no choice but to do as he asked, she straightened up from the wall and willed her legs to hold steady.
He pulled her tight against his body and they began to dance. “You are even more beautiful than you appear to be onstage.”
She gave him a thin smile, unsure of what to say. The proximity made her uncomfortable and hyper aware of his manhood pressing against her hip. She hoped to appear boring so he’d move on to someone else.
“You can speak offstage, can’t you?”
“Yes, your grace.”
“Better,” he grinned. “And so polite,” he twirled her out the door. “Not that I’m interested much in conversation.”
Her stomach dropped as the door latch clicked shut behind them. “What are you doing?”
“Calm down, kitten.” He pulled her flush to his body with his hand on her bottom. “I wanted some private time with you.” He grabbed her chin and crushed his lips against hers.
She pushed away. “No.”
He yanked her back with one arm and used his free hand to explore under her blouse. “I just want to inspect the merchandise before I buy,” he nibbled on her neck.
Struggling didn’t faze him in the slightest. She scratched at him, stomped on his foot and thought she had won when he withdrew his hand. Then using his knee, he wedged her thighs apart and lifted her skirt with fingers skimming lightly against her skin. Desperate, she balled up a fist and struck his face. He swiped a hand over his mouth to wipe away the blood that dribbled from his bottom lip.
“You bitch.” He growled and shoved her against the wall. Her breath rushed out and she tensed with hands thrown up anticipating the blows. She could hear the sickening sound of fists hitting flesh but the pain never came.
Maybe it’s the alcohol. She peeked between her fingers. A fierce, black haired man stood over the nobleman now sprawled out on the floor of the dark hallway.
“A bit too eager, Egan? Get the hell out of here and find someone else to play with.”
Egan stood up and glared at him. His fists opened and closed at his sides, but he turned and stormed back into the ballroom.
“Thank you.” She tucked in her top and smoothed her skirt.
The man grunted in reply and held the door open for her to rejoin the festivities. Once back inside he walked away and stood against the wall with his arms crossed.
“What happened?” Prudence came up from behind balancing a drink tray.
“I was attacked. That gentleman helped me.” She pointed toward the man by the wall.
“Do you know who that is?” Prudence widen her eyes when she spotted who Kathair pointed to. “Nicholai Finch. A powerful duke. Next to the King himself, the duke is most revered in Fayodale.” She pushed her arm down. “Kat, don’t point at him.”
Kathair bit her lip, at a loss in this new role of a lady. Prudence had tried to teach her the kingdom’s hierarchy. Each noble family was responsible for a vital operation. She searched her mind to remember the lessons. One controlled the water wheel that produced power for the lights in Fayodale proper. Another governed waterways for irrigation and drinking, yet another was in charge of mining operations providing metals for weapons and coinage. She couldn’t remember who did what, and wished now she’d paid more attention.
Prudence sighed. “Just go on and don’t let yourself get in such a situation again.”
The last hour of social call passed without any major events. She talked to and danced with various nobles. Egan didn’t come near her again and Nicholai stayed off to the side watching her every move. He diverted his gaze only when Prudence approached him with a tray to offer a drink. Kat noticed they spent several minutes in conversation and thought it strange as the serving girls are instructed to provide refreshment but not speak to the guests.
The lights flickered and the music stopped to signal the end of the gala and she soon forgot the incident as her nerves went into overdrive. Stroud stood near the exit with hands cupped around his mouth. “Gentlemen, if you please, you may now proceed to the minor theater to await the ladies while they prepare for their final performances and auction.”
A miniature version of the main theater, the minor theater held a stage half the size and seated fifty patrons at most. A room exclusive to Fayodale nobility, used for private shows and Connubial Mass.
Kathair, and four others up for marriage, moved to the small backstage space where they prepared. She looked around the room at those sharing the same fate tonight. Rosina, Jerusha, Ethelyn and Tamar. Hunters’ daughters like herself, brought up for this crowning moment, to attain a profitable union and raise their family’s status. The plague that took the lives of many females, several years ago, made it difficult for men of any social class to find a suitable partner for marriage. Lower class families paid a steep price to have their daughters go to the Mass at the theater and have a chance to marry a noble.
What is the gain when it comes to my marriage? Her parents were virtual strangers who bothered to visit a mere handful of times. She didn’t care to further the family status. Nevertheless, with the tribute paid, tradition dictated her future. She hoped to at least have a kind, handsome husband that she could grow to love over time. Even allowing herself to fantasize of future children and the family she lacked as of now.
Each girl performed a talent of her choice, dressed in a marriage gown that consisted of a sheer gauze material. They wore the barest of undergarments, a ribbon of soft fabric no wider than a hands width, wrapped around the secret areas. Enough to wet the men’s appetite’s, yet leave something for them to imagine or discover if they made the purchase.
The rest of the girls, either not of age of too poor to pay tribute, assisted them. Prudence helped Kathair tie the ribbon. “I tied it as tight as I could. It won’t slip and your new husband will have a hell of a time getting it undone.” With a sad smile she pulled the gossamer gown over her friends’ head. Kathair gave her one last hug and turned to go out onstage for her final performance.
The hot lights hit her face and she drank in the warmth on her skin for the last time. The theater, palace and chapel were some of the few places that had working lights. Only those with money could afford to pay the tax charged by the house controlling the water wheel of power. While the theater was not wealthy, the nobles invested in it for their own amusements sake.
She knew the lights cut through the gauze gown, revealing her near nakedness to the crowd of greedy men, but she pushed the thought out of her mind.
Stroud called her name and the music started. The original performance she’d agreed upon was an exotic dance but she had a change of heart while stepping forward. She walked to the side and whispered to Carrick, the pianist. With a nod his playing slowed and changed to a solemn tune as she moved to center stage. She straightened her shoulders and began to sing a song of the ancients Prudence had taught her. A song of companionship, love and gratitude. The sole gift she had to offer a woman who, although not related, was the one person of whom she could rely.