The Empress General has it all- until a shadow from her past arrives. Can she get it back?
I can’t believe I’m actually doing this, Laika thought as she looked out over the dewey valley. The sun had just risen, and it cast a strange sort of glow over the normally plain forest. Every leaf, every blade of grass was illuminated, shining with an odd sort of brilliance. It only made Laika’s heart hurt all the more for what she was about to do.
For the millionth time, she wondered if this was the right thing to do. But wouldn’t she be safer staying where she was? Wouldn’t she be happier? After all, everyone she knew lived here. It would only cause trouble to leave.
She banished the thought. Excitement surged through her as she thought of her possible future. Going off to the big city! Making a life for herself! Wasn’t it exciting? Wasn’t it lovely? Yes, she was sure she’d be fine, no matter what her stupid doubts said. This was going to be fun!
Hopping down from the porch railing, Laika slid open the glass door and went inside. Her house was one of the nicer ones in the neighborhood, and a pleasant aroma of pine needles and fresh sheets lingered in the air. Her bed was made, and her bags stood by the door. All that remained was to say goodbye to her family and friends and then she would be off, off to the greatest adventure of her lifetime! In a little over a day, she’d be in the capital, the big city itself! There, surrounded by promise and opportunity, she could finally make a name for herself as an artist. First, however, she would have to leave all she had ever known.
She skipped downstairs lightly and kissed her mom by the breakfast table. Mrs. Fae was tired and careworn, like a teddy bear that has been loved too much. Her job as a nurse at the local hospital put her constantly on alert, and many times Laika had woken up to find her mom gone. Nonetheless, Mrs. Fae found time for her daughter, who she loved with all her heart. Mr. Fae was much the same, although he had an easier job as an accountant and liked to sleep late. Usually, Laika would sit down and spend a few minutes with her mom before rushing off to school or work. But not today. Today she had a deadline to meet.
As the sun cleared the horizon, it found Laika sitting at a table in a nearby coffee shop. She was sipping her cappuccino and reading a book when the bell jingled and a tall, tanned teenage boy walked in. He had shaggy golden-brown hair that hung over his eyes and an easy, comfortable air. The boy walked over to her table and sat down. She looked up and her face lit up like a lightbulb.
“Ayden!” she exclaimed joyfully. “How’ve you been?”
He shrugged. “I’m okay. A bit down in the dumps about you leaving.” He looked up at her with a forlorn air and said, “Do you have to go?”
“Yes, I do. We’ve talked about this a thousand times, remember? This is a once in a lifetime opportunity. I can finally make something of myself in Palatine!”
“You can make something of yourself here too. It’s not like this is a small town that isn’t even on the map.”
Laika sighed. “Let’s not argue about this. Please? It’s my last day. I don’t want to leave you on a bad note.”
Ayden rolled his eyes. “Fine. I won’t complain about you leaving me for the big city, even though I absolutely despite the idea.”
“Good.” She folded her hands on the table. “So what do you want to do? We only have one day.”
“Well.” He folded his hands over hers. “Let’s just say I have plans.” His eyes sparkled with merriment and Laika couldn’t help but feel a surge of excitement.
Half an hour later, they were walking along the side of a gorgeous little lake not far from the city limits. The entire place looked like it was out of a storybook. Laika had to admit, living in a city surrounded by wild forest did have its benefits. The sky was a lovely cerulean blue, and the still water reflected it perfectly. She was delighted when Ayden dragged a little canoe out of the woods and set a picnic basket and some books in it.
She climbed in eagerly and almost fell out. He steadied her, chuckling. “Easy there.” He climbed in too and they set off.
They rowed out to the middle of the lake, where Ayden stopped and rested. They drifted for a little while, perfectly serene. Laika amused herself drawing the scene on a sketchpad she had brought. After some time had passed, Ayden spoke up. “Laika?”
“Yes?” She looked up, her gaze still far away.
“What would you think of staying here?”
She sighed and set down the pencil. “Ayden, we’ve talked about this. I can’t. Adventure awaits, remember?”
“I know, I know. You want to make a name for yourself.” He looked down and bit his lip, nervous. “But — well, Laika, the truth is that I don’t want you to leave. Ever.”
“What do you mean?” She looked confused. “I’m going to have to leave, Ayden. I’ve bought a train ticket.”
“Yes, I know, but — ugh. Why is this so hard to say?” He ran his fingers through his hair. “I really like you, Laika. You make me happy, happier than anything else could. I — I want to be that happy forever.”
She smiled in a way that was both condescending and kind. “Oh, Ayden. You know you can’t be happy forever. That’s not how the world works.”
“I know, I know. It’s just that . . . well . . .” He sighed. “You’re going away today, and I just thought you should know, before you leave, that I — well, I —”
“Yes?” She leaned forward, eyes wide with anticipation.
“I — wanted to give you this,” he said in a rush, pulling a gift from under his seat. She pulled back with a delighted little “oh!” and began to unwrap it. “Now, it’s not very big, and you might not like it, but . . . I tried.” He watched her face anxiously as she unwrapped a very pretty bamboo fountain pen. Her face lit up at the sight of it, but before he could say a word he began explaining it again. “I got this for you because, well, then you’d have something to write to me with. You know, when you’re off in the big city. So you don’t forget about me.” His voice trailed off at the end, and he bit his lip nervously.
“Oh, I could never!” she cried dramatically, leaning forward to give him an awkward hug. “Don’t you fret any about me forgetting you. It’d be dreadful hard, with you taking up so much space in my brain.” She laughed. He leaned forward eagerly.
“I take up a lot of space in your brain?”
“Well, naturally! I think about you night and day. You’re my best friend, Ayden. I can’t not think about you.”
“Yes, right. Your best friend. I’d forgotten.” He sat back thoughtfully. “Say, what if we were to meet up every now and then? Get together for a coffee or something?”
But she was already shaking her head. “It’s too far, Ayden, and you know it. The train fare alone would be dreadful.”
He sighed. “Yes, I suppose it would be. Nevertheless, we have to keep in touch. I have to make sure you don’t forget me, remember?”
She smiled affectionately. “As if there was a chance of that happening.”
An hour later, they were back in the city. Redwood wasn’t a big tourist town, so there weren’t many places to go if you wanted entertainment. Luckily, Ayden knew a place.
“The library?” she asked disbelievingly as he led her through the doors. “What would I do at the library?”
“Well, read, of course. That is, unless you wanted to do something else,” he said with a devilish smile. She laughed and shoved him.
“Like what? Alphabetize the books?”
“You could call it that.” He led her up the stairs and onto the roof. It was chilly up there, and Laika immediately pulled her jacket closer around her arms. It was that time of day that photographers call the golden hour, when the sun is just starting to set and everything is cast in a beautiful warm light. Up on the roof, they could see the entire city, stretching to the horizon. Ayden led her to where a pair of chairs stood by the edge and handed her a drink. She sat down and stared out across the landscape.
“This is beautiful,” she whispered. “I never realized how small it all was.”
He chuckled. “Glad you like it. This is my favorite place to go when I want some time to think, or when I just want a pretty spot to read. I’ve been meaning to bring you here for ages.”
“Well, it’s quite something,” she said, still in awe of the view. She took a sip of the drink; it was cherry, her favorite.
He grinned in response to her comment. “You haven’t even seen the best part yet. Wait until the sun goes down over that horizon, then I’ll show you a real treat.”
“Um, okay,” she laughed, and for the next couple of hours they talked. That was one thing Laika liked about Ayden: you could talk to him for hours. They never ran out of topics and the conversation rarely lulled.
They had dinner while the sun set, and as the last traces of daylight disappeared beneath the horizon he handed her a popsicle. “Now,” he said with a mischievous glint in his eye, “the real fun begins.”
Laika laughed, but gasped a moment later when from a building by the horizon, fireworks shot up. The show was marvelous and lasted for at least ten minutes, with all sorts of fireworks and even a couple that formed the shapes of fantastic animals. At a particularly large one she gasped, and hid her face in Ayden’s shoulder, laughing. He looked exceptionally pleased by this.
The show was soon over. “That was awesome!” Laika gasped, her face shining, and Ayden smiled.
“Glad that you liked it.”
They walked home in companionable silence, and he dropped her off at her door. They embraced quietly, and Ayden leaned in, but Laika didn’t seem to notice and turned away. He stepped back, embarrassed, and she turned to him again with a smile.
“Promise me you’ll write.”
“And you’ll visit me?”
She smiled and held her arms open again. They hugged briefly, and then she slipped inside. He stood for a few seconds by the door, and then trudged away down the street. His shoulders slumped, and he kicked a pole with a curse. From her window, Laika watched him go. Her mouth held the trace of a smile.
The next morning, Laika woke early. She’d originally awoken around 4 am, and after an hour of staring at the ceiling and trying to get back to sleep, she gave up and turned on the light. It was still dark outside, and she stared around her room as if trying to memorize every last detail of it. She wouldn’t see it again for another three months. The canopied bed she added to her memory, and the wicker reading chair, and the desk by the window. The posters on the walls of idols and heroes had already been torn down and packed, but other than that everything was still there.
Staring at her darkened room, Laika felt another surge of nostalgia. Was she destined always to doubt herself in the mornings? Firmly she pushed the feeling away, and devoted herself to keeping busy. She wrote letters to acquaintances and straightened things until the sun rose and her mom emerged bleary-eyed to knock on her door.
They ate a quick breakfast and then headed off to the station. The train for Palatine City left at 8 am sharp, and so there wasn’t much time to talk on the way. Her father met them there, having left early to secure tickets and a place for Laika’s luggage. He met her with a smile and a hug, as always, and she felt a burst of regret that she was leaving as she hugged him tight.
The family hung around in the station for half an hour after that, talking and waiting for the train to arrive. The time passed all too soon, and it was with a sad smile that Laika hugged her parents and told them she would miss them. She climbed onto the train with determination, however, and waved from her window for a long time. As the train began to move, she looked up and saw Ayden standing at the far end of the platform watching her. She waved to him excitedly, but he didn’t wave back. He just stood there staring at her with this unfathomable look in his eye. Eventually he turned away, leaving her unsettled and unsure.
As the train picked up speed, the door at the end of the car slid open and a girl came through. She had warm brown eyes and an air of freshness and youth like a blooming flower. A messenger bag was slung over her shoulder, and she looked around uncertainly. The whole compartment was full, except for the seat besides Laika and one by a scary-looking man who kept looking around nervously.
The girl came up to Laika and said uncertainly, “Um, may I sit here?” Laika nodded and moved her bag so the girl could sit down. She did so with a sigh of relief and took a book out of her bag. It was The Travels of Tiger Lily, Scourge of the Seas — Laika’s favorite book.
“Oh! You’ve read that one?” she exclaimed in delight. The girl nodded vigorously.
“I love it! It’s my absolute favorite book.”
“Oh my god, me too! What a coincidence.”
The other girl laughed. “Great minds think alike, I guess.”
“Indeed they do. And what is the name of this great mind?”
The girl laughed again. She did that a lot. “Bella. Bella Donahue. What’s yours?”
“Laika Dryadalei. What are you traveling to the capital for?”
“I plan to take up a position as a maid in the Palace. I’ve already been accepted, too; they say I’m to work in the East Wing.”
“No way! I’m doing the same thing.”
“What! Are you working in the same place too?”
“I think so.”
“Oh my god, that’s amazing! I am so glad that I found you.” The girls hugged impulsively and then both blushed, embarrassed. Bella laughed.
“So where will you be staying?” she asked.
Laika shrugged. “They have quarters for the maids, don’t they? I figured I would stay there.”
“You could, that’s true.” Bella thought for a second, then said abruptly, “How would you like to stay with me?”
“Not in a weird way, just as friends. I’m going to be lodging in a little apartment upstairs from a candy shop near the Palace. With your small size, I figure the both of us can fit. That is, if you want to. You can always say no.”
Laika shrugged again. “That sounds pretty nice. Are you sure your landlord or lady won’t mind me staying too?”
“I doubt it. Mrs. Campbell is a big-hearted woman. Most likely she’ll fuss over you and stuff you full of sweets like an old grandma.”
Laika laughed. “Sounds like my type. I’ll do it.”
“Fabulous!” The best friends beamed at each other, and then Laika asked,
“So, what are your interests? What do you like to read, other than swashbuckling romances?”
“Well, I’m a writer — or an aspiring one,” Bella said with a shy smile.
“You are? That’s so awesome!” Laika gushed. “What genre do you write?”
“Science fiction, mainly. Aliens and robots, you know. Spaceships, intergalactic battles … that kind of thing.”
“That’s so cool! I’m an artist, and I’ve always been interested in drawing sci-fi.”
“Maybe you can illustrate some stuff from my stories, then. I’ve got plenty of material — none of it finished, and all of it trash, but if you want to, you can.”
“That sounds great! We can be a team — you write the books and I draw the covers. Bella and Laika, the inspiring team taking the science fiction community by storm! They sing! They dance! And most importantly, they write!”
Bella was laughing by now. Laika joined in, and the two girls laughed their hearts out. Laika felt a warm feeling spread through her. She had already found a friend. Everything would be okay.
“So who are you leaving behind?” Bella asked once they had stopped laughing. “I’m leaving a mom, a dad, two brothers, and a best friend. I’m glad to escape the brothers, though. They are the sons of Satan, I swear.”
Laika laughed. “I’m leaving a mom, a dad, and a best friend. I’m really going to miss the friend. I haven’t been without him since … well, ever.”
“Wow. What’s his name?” Bella asked.
“Ayden. He’s an archer, and won himself a couple of prizes. You might have heard of him. He’s sweet, and kind, and the best friend anyone could ask for. When he heard I was leaving today, he took me everywhere. We had so much fun! I don’t know what I’ll do without him.”
“He sounds so sweet!” her new best friend gushed. “Is he the same one who won the Tri-City Championship?”
“So you have heard of him!”
“That Ayden?” Bella gasped. “Wow! He was all over the news for a couple weeks, you know. So brave, and such a hottie. Half the country had a crush on him.”
Laika cleared her throat, uncomfortable. “I see. Well, I don’t know about him being so perfect. I mean, I guess he’s kind of handsome …”
“Oh, please. He is smokin’ —”
“... but I’ve only ever thought of him as a friend. He’s great, of course, and I wouldn’t give him up for the world, but like that … no, I couldn’t. It would be too much.”
Bella shrugged. “Suit yourself. I’d leap at the chance to spend a day with him, myself.”
Laika grinned. “We can arrange that.”
Her friend laughed. “Oh, you! I would never be brave enough to actually do that. I don’t even know him.”
“We could fix that,” Laika said again.
Bella chuckled. “Whatever. Maybe some other time. You say he took you to a lake?”
“He did! And it was absolutely gorgeous. There were dewdrops and sunflowers and lilies-of-the-valley and …” she chattered on, not even noticing as the old forest gave way to rolling hills. Their conversation came to an end when the train stopped and a voice called, “Palatine City. Please collect your bags and make your way out.”
“We’re here!” Bella cried, seizing a bag from under her seat. Laika got her suitcase and followed her new friend off the train, pausing just after they stepped outside to take it all in.
The sun was nearing the horizon, and its beams pierced the city like golden blades. It made Laika squint. The sky was full of clouds, and they caught the rays of the setting sun and turned brilliant shades of coral pink, yellow, and sunset orange. But that wasn’t the most impressive thing. The thing that caught Laika’s eye was the palace. It was breathtaking.
The palace was made of translucent crystal, and the quartz caught the beams of the sun and reflected them off millions of surfaces, turning the entire palace a stunning shade of pinkish-orange. It shone like a diamond among coals, and the spires gleamed with an inner radiance. It was like looking upon the face of a goddess.
The city descended from the palace until it reached the gates. The houses looked like fairytale houses, and the wall was made of beautiful sandstone, with gates standing wide open. The River Initium’s surface was turned a lovely marbled orange color by the setting sun, and little canoes sat on its glassy surface here and there, each with a little lantern on one end.
Bella had stopped with Laika, and now she murmured, “Oh, wow.”
Laika made a sound of agreement and the two kept staring, awestruck, at the capital city. After what seemed like only a few seconds, they were forced to move by the pressing crowd of people behind them. They walked forward together, Bella’s hand seeking out Laika’s. They walked up to the gates and inside, feeling as if they were in a dream. One of the guards noticed their awestruck appearance and smiled. “Welcome to Palatine, ladies,” he called as they went in. “Welcome to the place where dreams come true.”
THE NEXT DAY, BELLA AND Laika reported together for duty in the East Wing. They had spent a pleasant night at Bella’s place; it turned out that her landlady was more than happy to take in another guest, especially one as gracious and amiable as Laika. There was ample space for the both of them, too, and room to decorate. The brisk walk in the chilly predawn air revived her spirits, and by the time they arrived she was feeling quite optimistic. They slipped in a little door in the gate and stopped, unsure of where to go.
The palace was even more beautiful up close. The dim, misty air swirled around the elegant spires and plentiful balconies, making the castle look like it existed in an ethereal fantasy world. The faint light illuminated the crystal, making it glow a subtle dove gray, and Laika couldn’t wait until the sun rose and transformed the castle into a sunburst of color. It seemed endless and boundless; unfortunately, the same mist that gave it its beauty also obscured where it was Laika and Bella were supposed to go.
They wandered around, confused, for a while before meeting a kitchen girl. “Excuse me, where do the maids go?” Bella inquired gently. The peasant girl shrunk back in alarm, then said in a voice that was barely audible, “They go in through the side door.”
“Can you show it to us?” Bella asked, and the little girl nodded. She ran fleet-footed through the courtyards and gardens, navigating the maze with expertise. At last she delivered the two girls to a little door in the castle wall, busy with foot traffic and busy servants carrying things in and out. Laika was even more amazed as they entered; even the servants’ quarters were exquisite, or so it seemed. Elegant scrollwork decorated every door, and the crystal of the castle’s walls gave a strange sort of transparency to everything.
After a little bit of wandering around getting under people’s feet, they found the other maids. They were gathered in a long, grandiose hallway, being thoroughly upbraided by a woman with a severe bun and continually cross expression. Laika hesitated, not wanting to disturb them or incur the strange woman’s wrath, but Bella barged right in.
“Hello?” she said, her voice echoing oddly in the expansive corridor. The woman, who appeared to be head of the maids, turned to her with an expression of unimaginable fury. Bella shrank back, then recovered her composure and said clearly,
“My name is Bella Donahue. I’m here to take up a position as a maid. Who do I speak to to begin?”
“You speak to me.” The woman looked Bella and Laika over with a critical eye. “My name’s Mrs. Ceannaideach. You’ll call me ‘ma’am’ or ‘Mrs. Head Supervisor.’ Nothing else. If I catch you talking smack about me or shirking your duty, it’s the outs for you. Now get on with ye. Bridgette’ll show you the way. Bridgette!”
A sour-faced woman with thin red hair stepped out of the lineup. Laika gulped at the look of malice that she gave the two new arrivals. Obviously she had some grievance with them, although what exactly it was she didn’t know.
Another woman stepped out of the line. She had seen Laika’s look of dread, and now she spoke up. “I can take them, ma’am. Bridgette’s got enough on her plate as is.”
Laika flashed a grateful smile at their rescuer, who smiled back. She had long golden hair wrapped up in a braided bun and cornflower blue eyes that twinkled with merry mischief. Laika decided on the spot that she liked her. She looked at Mrs. Ceannaideach anxiously, hoping that she would consent to let this friendly woman be their guide.
The Chief Supervisor hesitated for a long, painful moment, and then nodded. “Yes, good idea. Take them away, Loreen.”
The woman — Loreen — nodded and swept out of the room with Bella and Laika following. As soon as they were out of earshot, she let out a sigh and gave them a sympathetic look. “Sorry for that. The maids before you two were Bridgette’s friends; only, one of them got pregnant and the other sassed the cook. Bridgette didn’t think it was fair that they got kicked out, so she holds a grudge against you. I wouldn’t mind her; she’s all bark and no bite, mostly. Mrs. Ceannaideach is a different matter. We all call her the Mother Superior, on account of her acting like this is a nunnery. You’ll have to watch yourselves around her, unless you want to go the way of Bridgette’s friends. She won’t take any sass or talking back, and even the slightest hint of sarcasm can have you scrubbing the toilets for days. I guess it’s pretty hard to work here, but we manage. And we’re all very close friends. Most of us anyways; Bridgette’s different.
“Now. You’ll be working in the East Wing, as I’m sure you know. That’s the guest wing. You’ll start out with the easier rooms, most of which have a straightforward list of things to do and are practically identical. Stay a little longer, and you may advance to the personalized rooms. Those ones are weird indeed. I work in one of ’em. It’s crazy, I tell you. Crazy but fun. Anyhow, you’ll have to work your way up. My advice for you is keep your head down, don’t start trouble, and work like the dickens. It’s the surest way to get promoted quick and not get bothered.”
They had reached a white door that said ROOM 4A. Loreen knocked, and without waiting for a response pushed the door open. The room was empty, and the first thing Laika noticed was that the walls weren’t crystal. She gasped and grasped Bella’s arm. Loreen noticed her surprise, and hastened to explain, “Not everything in here is crystal. The floors aren’t, for example, like you might have noticed. Besides, how impractical would it be to live in a transparent room? You’d have no privacy. Some of the walls are made of cloudier crystal, and others aren’t crystal at all, like these. I wouldn’t take much notice of it. Your work will be the same.”
Laika nodded breathlessly, and risked a glance around the rest of the room. It was large and extravagant, and resembled a picture of an old-fashioned plantation house she had seen once. The huge canopy bed in the center was unmade, and Loreen pointed to it. “You’ll have to fix that. And clean out the fireplace. Replace the towels, dust the shelves, sweep and straighten. Make this room look new. I’ll be back around lunchtime to collect you. Don’t make me regret deciding to sponsor you.” With that she retreated and closed the door.
Laika wasted no time deliberating; she got straight to sweeping the floors. After a couple minutes, she noticed that Bella hadn’t joined her. She looked around and saw her friend sitting on the bed staring morosely at the ground.
“Hey. What’s up? You look kinda down,” she said, sitting next to her.
Bella jumped and gave Laika a nervous smile. “Nothing.”
“You look all tense. Why are you so uncomfortable? You look great.”
“Well, it’s just that —” Bella sighed. “I didn’t envision myself growing up to become a maid.”
“A palace maid,” Laika reminded her.
“Big deal!” Bella snapped. “A maid’s a maid. If we don’t get out of here now, will we ever? You realize we could be stuck here for life without any promotion!”
Laika sighed and gathered her pinafore in her hands. “I know. We could also fall off a wall, trip on the stairs, or get run over by a cart. We could have a million things happen to us. But I prefer not to think about those things. If I did, I’d be to scared to leave my house; I’d always be worrying, and nothing would get done. That would really be a waste of life. So instead, I prefer to think about the positive things. We could be stuck here forever, yes; but we could also be promoted within a month to the Empress General’s ladies-in-waiting. The Empress General is the ruler of all Coppernia, in case you’d forgotten. She could give us any position we wanted. We’d be heroes! And all because we went to the palace to be maids.”
Bella laughed. “True enough. I guess I should stop being such a downer.”
“Yeah, you really should,” Laika agreed. “Now c’mon. Let’s start our new job. And hey, what do you know, maybe we will be the Empress General’s ladies-in-waiting someday. It’s possible.”
“True,” Bella acknowledged with a grin, and they got to work.
* * *
A couple hours later, Loreen came to collect them. She looked around the room and proclaimed with an approving smile and a nod, “Good work, girls. You really cleaned it up.”
Laika practically glowed with the praise and Bella rolled her eyes, smiling. Loreen led them downstairs to the eating hall, where all the servants and maids were gathered for lunch. They sat near the middle of the table, with Loreen’s friends.
“So what do you think of the Palace so far?” asked a pretty brunette who introduced herself as Emma Campbell. She responded with a grin.
“I love it. It’s a little weird being able to see through the walls, but the architecture more than makes up for it.”
The brunette nodded. “You should see it on festival days. They do this weird magic where the castle walls all light up and glow from the inside.”
“Wow,” Laika whispered, eyes as wide as saucers.
“I take it there’s a mage at the castle then?” Bella asked, trying to sound nonchalant. Mages were a big deal, as they were so rare.
“Yes, there is. Several, actually. But the one who does the walls is the Empress General herself.”
“Seriously?” Laika asked, agape.
“Yeah, although in my opinion she’d do better to leave it to the Mage of Dreams, Marianne. The Empress is a fair ruler, but not the best at light magics.”
They gasped as if she had just committed blasphemy. “You can’t talk like that about the Empress General! We’ll get arrested!” Laika cried.
“She’s called the Empress General for a reason. She could call out the army on you,” Bella added.
“We could be cross-examined. Executed!” her friend cried.
“We could lose everything!”
“Will the both of you please calm down? Things aren’t as strict as they seem. The Empress General wouldn’t execute somebody just for saying
she wasn’t the best at a particular spell. She’d probably laugh and agree. Anyway, the Duke of Archfendel is the one you should be worried about. They say he once dismembered a man for looking at him the wrong way, although in my opinion he’s just another insecure pansy.”
“You’re very bold, Miss Campbell,” Bella said quietly. “You ought to be more careful.”
“Oh, please,” she scoffed. “That’s just what everyone says of him. And call me Emma.”
“Then tell me, Emma, where might I find this arrogant dukeling? Is he perhaps in the kitchen? The maids’ quarters, perhaps?” Bella asked with perfect composure. The brunette reddened.
“You have no right to speak to me in such a way,” she replied, very low and fast. “To even imply that one of us would be skulking around with the likes of him—”
“Ladies, please, let’s not get worked up,” said Loreen smoothly, with a reproving glance at Bella. “I personally prefer not to get involved in castle gossip, but to each their own. Now, should we show the new girls a proper Palace welcome?”
Bella and Laika looked anxiously at each other as the other maids fervently agreed, but their worries were assuaged when Loreen led them only to the top of a tall, abandoned tower, and not to a toilet or some other unpleasant receptacle.
“This is where the first mistress of this castle, Lady Antebella Shrewstock, took her life,” Emma whispered, who had since been restored to good humor by Bella’s giving away her desert, a large chocolate cookie. “But these days we just use it to spy on the young noblemen.”
“Here is the best view in the castle, apart from the Empress General’s chambers,” Loreen said, with a glare at the gossiping Emma. “It is very beautiful, and many pictures have been painted of this view.”
She stepped aside to let the new arrivals see the famed view, and Laika gasped. She was rather prone to that, Bella thought with amusement. And indeed the view was lovely. The pastel-blue sky stretched to the horizon, dotted with fluffy white clouds, and the air was warm and clear. To the north one could see the snowcapped peaks of the Great Northern Ice Sheet, and to the south were discernible the lush jungles of Amazonia. To the west, Laika fancied she could see the lofty spires of Redwood and its sister city, Elfin. A gentle breeze carried to the tower window, and rustled the leaves of the great forest where it sloped down to the sparkling walls of the capital city. The beauty of it was so classic, and so timeless, that it quite took Laika’s breath away. She stood there gaping at it for a couple minutes before Loreen gently dragged her away.
The rest of her first day passed in a blur. Laika barely remembered going off-duty, stumbling home overcome by exhaustion, and passing out on her bed. One thing was certain: maid work was tiring. She groaned at the mere thought of having to get up again the next morning and start the same thing over again. And she would be doing this for months! She scolded herself for being a pansy and went to bed, feeling as if there couldn’t be a softer bed to be found in all the world.
* * *
Over the course of the next week, Laika made more friends. The girl Bella had fought with, Emma, turned out to be really nice once you got past her shallow exterior, and although she and Bella could never be friends, they were civil in each other’s presence out of affection for Laika. Emma introduced the two of them to the rest of the girls in turn, and more friends were gained.
The first of these was Marisol. Laika’s first impression of her was that she was shallow, one of those ditzy rich girls that seemed to live only for drama and boys. She was soon proved wrong, however. Marisol was quite intelligent, and gracious and kind to boot. Within minutes they were best friends. Bella watched as they squealed and gripped each other’s hands and laughed, and felt a pang of something like jealousy shoot through her. Angrily she pushed it away and turned around so she wouldn’t have to see their ecstasy.
Across the lunchroom she spotted a girl sitting by herself. She had mouse-brown hair in a pixie cut and wore … was that a sword by her side? Intrigued, Bella crossed the lunchroom and sat down beside her. The girl gave her a suspicious glare but didn’t say anything.
“Hey, my name’s Bella. What are you doing with one of those in here?” She gestured to the sword, and the girl drew it closer to her.
“It’s mine. My father gave it to me.”
“I’m not questioning your right to it. There’s no need to get all defensive,” she laughed. “It’s just a bit unusual to have one of those in here.”
“I carry it everywhere. I have a permit.”
“Why do you carry it everywhere?”
“As I said, my father gave it to me. And it’s dangerous. Where I come from, if you don’t carry a weapon, you’re liable to get robbed or even murdered. It would be like setting out without your clothes.”
Bella laughed. “Point taken. So where do you come from? And what’s your name? If we’re to be friends, I ought to know, right?”
Bella shrugged, made self-conscious by the surprise in the unfamiliar girl’s voice. “I thought we might be.”
To her surprise, the girl nodded. “Sure. I could use a few allies in here. The name’s Adara. I come from Hartville, to the south.”
“Nice to meet you, Adara,” Bella responded, shaking her hand. “What’s in Hartville?”
An odd misty look came over Adara’s face. “My home,” she said softly. Then with a firm shake of her head, she added, “My family lives there, too, but I don’t see much of them anymore.”
“Oh.” Bella nodded sympathetically. “Left on bad terms, huh?”
“I don’t want to talk about it,” Adara said stiffly. Bella nodded.
“Good enough. Well, Adara, if you ever want to join us, my friends and I’ll be over there. We’d be glad to have you, so long as you promise not to skewer any of us.”
Adara smiled. The expression transformed her face, making it look almost cheerful. “Thank you. That’s a generous offer.”
“Only what a friend would do.” Bella stood. “I’ll be seeing you around, then. Don’t be a stranger.” With that she left, sauntering over to where Laika, Marisol, and Emma stood. Adara watched her go with a strange wistful look, as if watching something that she couldn’t have.
* * *
Marisol and Adara were by far not the only friends the two newcomers made. There was gentle, quiet Selene, and vivacious Violet, as well as many others. Within a few days, Laika and Bella were the darlings of the entire staff. They never wanted for company, especially Laika, whose sunny disposition and willingness to talk to anybody made her a favorite. Bella and Adara grew closer and closer, as Laika drifted further and further from her first friend. She spent more and more nights out with Marisol and Emma, walking the town, and was home less and less. One night, when she got in after midnight, Bella confronted her.
She caught her friend sneaking in through the back door. She let her get halfway across the kitchen before she grabbed her arm and whirled her around. Laika gasped, and Bella demanded, “What the hell is going on with you?”
Laika brushed her dress off with an arch expression. “I have no idea what you’re talking about,” she said loftily. “What are you doing, lying in wait for me like an overprotective mother?”
“Why are you getting home so late?” Bella whisper-yelled. “Every night you’re out, going to bars with your new friends, and sometimes you don’t get back until it’s nearly sunrise! What’s wrong with you?”
“Nothing’s wrong with me,” Laika retorted. “And I have not been going to bars. We’ve been to inns, that’s all! Is it my fault if they serve alcohol there? Of course not! You’re making way too big of a deal out of this.”
“Act innocent all you like, but I know the truth. You’re trying to be popular. You think if you rebel and stay out all night drinking, it’ll make you well liked, but it won’t! I’ve been there, Laika, and it’s not a good idea. You’ll just end up wasted and with an addiction you can’t shake. Please, listen to me. Come back before it’s too late.”
“Maybe that’s how it was for you, but it won’t be like that with me. I’m smarter. I’ve been watching myself. I know how much I drink, and it’s not a lot. I’d never betray my parents like that, nor you. I’m responsible.”
“Do you call going on dates with a different guy every night responsible?”
“At least I’ve got dates! At least I’m not a pathetic spinster who only hangs out with a sword-toting reject!” Laika yelled. They weren’t even bothering to keep their voices down anymore.
“Oh, that is not fair, and you know it! Adara is a wonderful person. She’s just not very social.”
“Yeah, if ‘not very social’ means ‘reclusive and hermetic.’ She’s no fun, Bella. And she’s no good for you either. Have you heard her history? I bet you haven’t. She ran away from her loving family because they wanted to send her to her aunt’s. She tried to kill her stepmother! Does that sound like a healthy person to be around? What if she tries to kill you next?”
“I trust Adara! And you’re one to speak of toxic friends. What about those fakes you hang out with? Do you think they’re good for you? At least my friends actually want to be there!”
Laika gasped. “You dare—”
“Yes, I do. It’s the truth, Laika. I’ve seen how they act, pretending to be your best friends and then badmouthing you as soon as you step away. I’ve heard those pathetic insults they call clapbacks. They’re not good for you. They’re not nice.”
“What do you care?” she yelled. “Don’t you act like you’re any better! I know you don’t really care about you. You only hung out with me because I was alone on the train!”
“No, I spoke to you because you liked my favorite book!”
“Same difference! The truth is, Bella, we’re different. Too different. We may have been friends at first, but things have changed now, and we can’t hang out anymore!”
“So what, you’re going to move out?” There were tears in Bella’s eyes. There were some in Laika’s too.
“If that’s what it takes for you to leave me alone, then yes! I’m tired of this, Bella. I’m tired of you questioning my life choices. I’ll do what I want, when I want, and I don’t care what you say!”
“Laika, please —”
“No, Bella! I’m done. I’m leaving. Goodbye.” She picked up her bag and made for the door. Bella blocked it.
“Laika, no! You can’t go. Please. Think of all we’ve been through, all the fun times we’ve had. Are you really going to leave, after all that?”
“Yes.” Laika made for the door again, and again Bella blocked it.
“Come on, think this through. You have nowhere to live. In a week you’ll be out on the street. Then what will you do? You have to have a home to work as a maid. You’ll be sent home in disgrace, or even worse, stay here and rot just like those old maids you see on the street.”
“I don’t care. Anywhere’s better than here. Any fate is better than this.”
“Laika!” Bella caught her shoulders and spun her around. “Listen to me. You may have been able to put on displays like this when you were back home, but this is the city. This is dangerous. You could get killed. I — I don’t want you to die, Laika please, please stay for at least one night … you can leave in the morning…”
Laika’s expression softened, and for one moment Bella dared hope that she would stay. Then her face closed down, and she brushed roughly past. “No. This is goodbye, Bella. Don’t try to find me.”
Then she was gone, like the wind that whistled down the dark alley. Bella really let herself cry now, and lay by the back door until she fell into a restless sleep.
Meanwhile, Laika was walking very fast away from the house. It was dark, and her breath came faster and faster with fear, but she didn't turn back. She couldn’t. It would be disgraceful in the extreme to return humiliated after she had just declared she could make it on her own. All she needed was to find an inn … then she could rest … but she couldn’t find one. She looked and looked, up main streets and down alleys, but all the inns were either full up or unwilling to take her. Apparently a distraught sixteen-year-old girl is not the best customer for an innkeeper to serve. At last she stopped, exhausted and on the verge of tears. A nearby pile of crates looked like as good a place as any to cry her heart out, and she made her way over there. She had barely sat down when a figure blocked the light from the street and a menacing voice said, “Well hello there, little lady.”
“Ah!” She jerked into alertness, nerves singing, heart beating wildly. “Stay — stay back,” she faltered, eyes wide open and scared. The figure shifted.
“Don’t be afraid. I’m not here to hurt you, but I will if I don’t get what I want.”
“What do you want? Money? My life? I’m afraid I haven’t got anything on me,” she cried desperately, hunching into a corner.
“Nothing much, just your purse and that pretty little dress you’ve got on. I’m quite reasonable, you see.”
“But — but then I’ll have nothing to wear.”
The shadow shrugged. “Not my problem. Hand it over, lady, or do I have to get violent?”
“No — please — help!” she screamed. “Help, please, somebody help me! I’m being robbed! Help!” But no one came, and as she squeezed her eyes shut the last thing she thought of was Bella and how she was never going to see her again.