Handmade Blankets and Body Heat
On the night of King Ballantyne’s Parting Feast, Tonaan made her way to the kitchens upon finishing her work in the gardens. She would have normally waited for Lilliput outside, enjoying her time in the royal gardens as much during her leisure as she did when at work. However, the rain continued to drawl that night as it had the last week or so – every day since the Prince’s arrival to the castle – and Tonaan was not eager to further wet her curls.
Tonaan was not supposed to know the Prince had returned. But as a member of the kitchen staff that prepared the Prince’s meals, Lilliput knew. What Lilliput knew, Tonaan knew. There were no secrets between Tonaan and Lilliput.
The rain itself was not unusual for that time of the year. It was in fact welcome, as it helped to knock the leaves from the trees and fill the springs. But on that day, it seemed to particularly disturb Tonaan. As she was tending to the fallen leaves, collecting them for the compost, she found one white leaf nestled among the pile of orange. An omen of death.
It had shaken her. She wanted to drown the image in cheap rum and pass her time with friends to keep her mind off the omens their castle hosted, to celebrate their King while they could still call him such. So, Tonaan went to the kitchens. She leaned against a back shelf near Lilliput’s worktable and watched as her friend fiddled over minute details.
There was sorrow in everyone’s eyes here even more so than there had been in the gardens. Tonaan guessed that the King’s Last Outing felt heavier in the hearts of those who actually prepared the food, just as the grooming of the Hill of Kings felt to her. Regardless of what symbols found their way into each person’s heart, soon all the kingdom would know of the King’s impending death.
Tonaan stared at Lilliput’s muscular fingers searching for something to say, anything to interrupt the silence that filled the kitchen, anything to make noise in a space so quiet she could almost hear the thoughts of each person in it. But “Rum?” was all Tonaan could come up with.
“Aye,” Lilliput responded, not looking up at her friend.
And that ended it. They were back to that stomach-turning silence. Tonaan stared blankly into the space between her and Lilliput, her eyes glossed.
Several moments later, there came a soft, “Me too,” from beside her. Tonaan turned her head to see Lilliput hanging up her apron, looking at her with a sadness in her eyes Tonaan was sure mirrored her own.
Tonaan had just begun to collect her things from where they sat on the shelf beside her when they were joined by a young scullery maid.
“Aye,” greeted the freckle faced girl, “Are ye doin’ anythin’ tonight?”
“I dinna plan anythin exacts, Moira,” Lilliput said to the girl, “but yer welcome to join us for a dram at my table.”
“Thanks,” Moira attempted to smile but the effort was ill fated.
Tonaan put a hand half-heartedly on her shoulder and turned to the crowd of kitchen staff gathering their belongings, “Anyone else fancy a drink?”
There came a few “Aye”s from their usual crowd – Clarinda and Lodam with Gowdie trailing silently behind. But as they collected, the old Cook pointed a wooden spoon at them scornfully, “You lot behave yourselves now.”
“Of course, Piran.” Lilliput seemed to respond instinctively.
But Tonaan had her mind elsewhere in sight of his infamous wooden spoon, “Got any bannocks?”
He waved it at the pheasants now being toted away by waitstaff shooting envious glances at the group congregating by the door, “Pheasant today. No lard for the dough.”
“Tonaan held her hands up dramatically, hoping a bit of a show would help distract the lot from their misery, “Hey! I just grow yer herbs. I don’t cook ‘em.”
Piran flicked his spoon to the door, “Take some sweet biscuits instead and then away with you lot!” He looked to Lilliput with warmth in his smile, “I’ll have plenty of coffee brewed in the morning.”
“Thank you, Piran,” she smiled and wrapped a large portion of pink biscuits in wax dipped parchment before joining the rest in the rain.
Tonaan looped her arm through Lilliput’s as her friend pulled her cloak over her sandy hair, “I think you befriending that old codger is the best thing that’s ever happened to me. Thank the Cliffs I got ye that interview!”
There was a faint laugh through the group. Well, it was more of a series of amused exhales; but regardless, it told Tonaan that her attempt to mask gloom with humor had been successful.
Their little group was soaked through and a few bodies larger by the time they made it to Lilliput’s flat above the button shop. Each of them stripped down to their shifts and bastions and hung their clothes by the fire. Lilliput passed out blankets for them to wrap themselves in. Why she had so many, Tonaan always marveled. Most of them Lilliput had made herself, weaving with her fingers wool yarn as Tonaan had seen her do many times —weaving as they chattered away about nothing and everything, their lives and dreams and the annoying habits of their coworkers. But there was one, Tonaan’s favorite, that someone else had made for her — a quilt of warm colors and hasty stitches. Tonaan always made sure to snatch it up for her own use any time she was there to visit, which was often.
There was something about Lilliput that made her home the hive everyone flocked to. Tonaan was not sure if Lilliput had intended for it to be that way or if it was happenstance, for her flat was neither the biggest nor the closest to the castle where they worked. But there was something about her place that made it feel home to all.
Their cozy group of castle staff sat around Lilliput’s table with mismatched glasses and nothing but blankets to cover their underclothes. Lilliput knelt by the fire in a fresh wool nightdress and stockings, rising the coals she left in embers throughout the day, while Tonaan poured generous helpings of spiced rum into each of their cups. By the time Tonaan made her way to Lilliput, she was standing in wait with an amber apothecary jar held out for Tonaan to fill. They shared a look between them, one that could only be shared between friends who had each other’s hearts. They felt the same sadness.
Returning to the table, Tonaan could see that they all did. She held her glass up to the disheveled gang before her, “To the king!”
“Aye, to the king!” they echoed.
“May he rest peacefully,” mumbled Lilliput before taking a slow sip.
Tonaan wrapped her arm around the shoulders of her friend and they leaned against each other as they drank. The hours went from whence they came and the glasses drained a few times over. The rain continued to pour through the night and Lilliput’s curtains soaked as they protected the group from her glassless windows. They migrated from chairs to the tattered sofa and from the sofa to the floor, all the while telling stories of small interactions with King Ballantyne. He was a friend to all and an idol to many.
They went on this way until they ended up in a pile of bodies and blankets on the floor near the hearth, where the lot of them fell asleep — kept warm by liquor and body heat as much as the low embers and Lilliput’s handmade blankets.
Tonaan was one of the last to fall asleep, and as she drifted off to that dreamless place copious amounts of spirits always led her, she looked to her friends and thought, If nothing else, I must thank the king for bringing us together.
But her last thought was one she would be thankful to lose through the night. This all is about to change.
Her Brother’s Home, Her’s
Marcy was woken in the middle of the night by her father’s personal guard, which she knew could only mean one thing: he was gone. The sight of the aging man’s face in the darkness of her bedchamber brought hot tears to the edges of her eyelids; but she pushed them back, refusing to let the sorrow spill over. Marcy hear a shuffling and looked to see the shining metal plates of the Heir’s Guard armor catching in the faint moonlight as they moved about the room, presumably collecting the trunks she had been made to pack upon her brother’s arrival.
It was time, the time she had dreaded her entire adolescent life. On this night, her father was dead, her brother was King, and she was Heir to the Throne — sent into isolation for her own protection, pending an intensive education. Marcy was not permitted to see the remnants of her father, so say goodbye to his lifeless remains. Instead, she was hailed into a black carriage with not windows, still in her nightdress, and rushed through the forest to a cottage that would be her “home” for the coming years.
Marcy had been to her Heir’s Keep plenty visiting Kilmaene. Their visits had led Mary to associate the cottage with joy nad laughter. Her memories of the place were filled with pseudo-sunny days playing in the garden and cozy nights snuggled by the fire with sweets and silly stories shared between she and her brother and mother.
But as she now sat in the nearly soundless carriage rushing toward that sordid location in the dead of night, with her father only just passed, surrounded by Heir’s Guard and doing everything she could to refuse them her tears, the stone and thatch cottaffe in the middle of the woods seemed eerie and foreboding. A place of great peril. In an instant, seventeen years of golden memories spoiled like gray milk.
Marcy tried to lull herself back to sleep as they traveled like a wraith in the night through the short distance of countryside that lay between the capitol and the King’s Forest; but each time her body began to relax, her mind began to picture her father’s body cold in his bed with maggots crawling out of his eyes like prey long dead. The light disappeared and she knew they had entered the Pass, a cave-like tunnel at the base of a border mountain that took them from Cynefrid to the uncharted King’s Forest. Marcy had never actually seen the Pass, but she assumed from the way what little sound the carriage made bounced off their surroundings and the sudden damp chill that this is what it was.
Marcy clawed at the seam of the carriage door, desperate for a gap big enough to grasp onto, but it was latched from the outside by a series of of complicated bolts and fastenings that kept its edges flush. Feeling defeated, Marcy slumped back against the black velvet cushions, but still, refused to let her tears spill.
After several hours, the carriage came to a stop and Marcy could hear the distinct clinking of guards unlatching the horse collars from the carriage. Marcy always assumed the rest of the path too narrow for the horses; but even after all this time, she still did not understand why the Guard would not let her out to travel on foot. Instead, they pulled the carriage by hand. Without the horses, the ride was significantly less smooth, and Marcy could feel the difference in surface texture as the Midnight Carriage was pulled onto a stone floor. She heard the muffled click of iron as the guards bolted what she presumed was a set of wooden doors behind her.
Only then did the seam that she had so desperately clawed at begin to separate and she was let to exit the black cabin into a room she’d never been in seventeen years of visiting the Heir’s Keep. Marcy was led down an impossibly long and windowless hallway, lit only by sconces dripping with sconces too far apart to see properly and dripping with hundreds of years of wax.
The Changing of the Heir, Marcy remembered.
The idea was to keep her out of sight from anyone who may have slipped through the heavily guarded perimeter. Though, any unauthorised person getting so far into the grounds was an unlikely scenario. Security of the Heir was of the highest priority to the monarchy and carried with it traditions perfected over a millennium. And for this, the Line not been interrupted since the creation of the Union. The Signy family had ruled Cynefrid since it was named such.
Marcy Signy had no desire to be King. It was an idea that she had never entertained. The coming years to be spent locked away in preparation for the possibility of ruling the kingdom should her brother perish before producing an Heir were of great dread to the princess. Already, she could not wait to trade places with the infant babe her brother was obligated to father. Only then would she be allowed her freedom.
Marcy was escorted from the windowless stone hallways and into her new bedchamber through a door that seemed to disappear as soon as it closed behind her. The curtains were pulled shut so tightly they seemed to have been sewn together. The guards carried no candles. There was nothing to let light into the room for the fear of letting light out and signaling her presence. But Marcy did not need light to know her way around this room… her brother’s room.
She knew it well from all the nights she, her mother, and her brother had slept in the same bed just to be nearer each other. From all the bedtime stories their father had requested his wife read to the two children he would never see together. She know it from all the jokes she had played on her brother, and from all the times she had come to borrow his clothes because her own had been soiled with mud. She knew every inch of this place; but in that moment, she wished she didn’t.
Marcy was sure the guards in the room noticed the change in the pattern of her breathing for the quickened their pace and finally left her to mourn. Her escorts posted themselves outside of her shut doors, which she was certain was not protocol. But with them finally gone, Marcy broke into a fit of sobs, letting the grief wash over her as her knees sank into the thick carpet.