Augustus 6, 373

Augustus 6, Lord’s Year 373

Late Evening

Setting down her charcoal pencil, Saira smooth’s a hand across her face, rubbing at her eyes, their lids heavy and weighed with weariness. Her mind is racing with thoughts of the conversation she had earlier that day with miss dul Decapua. She finds that, while agreeable, the lass’s sudden interest in befriending her strikes her as odd and rather abrupt. Why would she want to be friends with Saira, who is about as socially outgoing as a mute beggar?

After some consideration, she allows that perhaps the gossip surrounding the woman is just that. Gossip. But why would someone care so much about a relatively uninfluential gentry woman who has only been in the city for a few months? Is it merely envy, commoners wishing they could hold the same status miss Decapua does? She has heard rumors about several gentry, even the nobility are not spared. But what point does it serve?

“Perhaps it is much like Fae and the girls,” she murmurs aloud, staring down at the design she is working on, dark outlines glaring up at her from a creamy sheet of paper. “Some people simply gain their thrills by condemning others.”

Saira has never been the type to care overmuch about others she does not know. She is blessed with a husband who loves her unconditionally and a family alliance that only benefits. She can admit her focus is somewhat narrow and self-serving, fixed upon the inflation of her family’s coffers above socializing with her piers. Perhaps she is attempting, in her way, to salvage what Fae has wrought. Perhaps it is her way of ensuring she is never again forced into a situation where she can be oppressed and ruled over the way her stepmother ruled over her after father’s death. In any case, she simply cannot understand why the freemen care what the gentry is doing. How does it apply to them?

“Maybe I should get out more,” she muses to the cubby holes at the back of her desk.

“I should say so.”

Glancing up, Saira smiles when she sees Bonnie bustling in, her arms full of Saira’s night garments. Matilda follows suit, bearing her toilette basket.

“You focus too much time on your work, lady,” the tall, dusky-skinned handmaid declares as the door opens to admit several of the chamber maids, each bearing steaming ewers of water.

“I have never been the outgoing sort, Bonnie,” Saira remarks, rising from her desk and stepping into the center of the room, turning her back to Bonnie that the woman may unlace the stays of her gown.

“Maybe it’s time you started, lady.”

Bonnie always calls her “lady” now, the highest title of respect she can bestow. Saira used to protest in the beginning. Bonnie had been her nursemaid. There was never a time when the plump Farin woman was not there. When she came of age and married, however, when Bonnie’s role shifted from nursemaid to lady’s maid, for lack of a better title, so did her address.

Even so, Bonnie is afforded more freedoms in her speech than Saira would allow any other servant. Bonnie is loved. She is family, unlike the others save Hyndric.

“I am what I am,” she states, holding out her arms and allowing Bonnie to slip her gown from her shoulders. “It is not so simple as just ceasing to be what my personality demands of me. I have never been able to feign interest in people who are simply not interesting to me. Why would I wish to start now? Is that not a form of deception, which is itself a sin?”

“It’s part of being gentry,” Bonnie responds as Saira steps from the puddle of skirts. “You know that.”

“I know,” she sighs as her corset is loosened and drawn away, affording her room to inhale a full breath for the first time all day. “I still do not enjoy the deception of it, however.”

“It’s not much different than just making new friends,” Bonnie chastises. “You’ll never know if there are people you like until you focus on something other than work and mingle with them.”

Saira ponders these words as her remaining garments are removed and she is helped into the steaming cedar tub that has been dragged into the room. Has Fae turned her against casual socializing, or has she always been so reserved? The city is frightening in its own ways, she can admit, and she does have much to occupy her mind. Idleness is sinful, and where there is work that needs overseeing, there can be no room for it.

As Bonnie combs shampoo through the long waves of her hair, she closes her eyes, allowing the soothing scrape of the dull teeth against her scalp and her handmaid’s gentle fingers to lull her into a sleepy stupor. She does not recall much of being washed and assisted into her nightclothes, though she does remember the blissful feel of cool sheets and a soft mattress beneath her when Bonnie assists her into bed, tucking the blankets about her the way she used to when Saira was just a child.

“Goodnight, lady,” she murmurs before departing the room in the company of the other servants.

Saira is asleep before she can even think to respond.

Augustus 5, 373

Augustus 5, Lord’s Year 373

Mid-Morning

Dear Garrion,

Svurien’s birthday approaches, and I still do not know what to get him. I wish to craft him a pipe, but a design he might find acceptable is eluding me. He is awfully particular, and I cannot offer him something I am not one hundred percent certain he will be fond of.

Even as those lines dry upon this page, an idea has come to me. I do hope I can execute it in time, and that he will find it agreeable.

Lithmore is not what I had expected. There is a thrill in its ever-moving energies, and I find myself fascinated by the stone edifices that pierce the sky like artificial mountains, causing me to feel awfully small indeed.

The society within the city, however, leaves much to be desired. Svurien and I have made but two acquaintances whose company I truly enjoy, and only one of them is appropriate, the other being but a freeman and thus, not an individual I can extend the hand of friendship too. Not publicly, anyway. Father always urged me never to do such a thing if I wished for my reputation to remain intact.

Reputation. I met a Lord who called a reputation a fickle thing. I begin to wonder if he is right. We let it define so much of us. It is both intangible and yet felt as keenly as if it were the blade of a knife. Always slipping. Always tenuous. Always needing to be handled with care.

There is much I must come to accept about the capital that I find I do not much care for. Rumor has it that there is a courtesan amongst us, and she comports herself with all the unabashed boldness of a Vavardi. I was skeptical when I first heard the rumor, but after hearing whispers of her actions, I cannot but wonder why such a woman is permitted to mingle in polite society. She is acquainted with two Lords I know of, one of whom sought private time with her that he might ask her a question unfit for public ears.

Garrion, why would a Lord claim such a thing *in public? Is it not scandalous? Why does a courtesan brush elbows with the gentle bred and nobility without even a glance from the Order. I feel unclean merely inhabiting the same room as her now that I have heard the truth of what she is.

It is not merely the shocking indiscretions I have seen that causes me to feel as if the ground beneath my feet has exponentially shifted, keeping me perpetually off center. The economic balance of the city is a wreck. The commoners are in positions to earn more money than we gentle folk, free peoples are lofted into positions of power they can barely hold and Inquisitors walk around covered in blood, lashing young girls in taverns for little reason save that “the angle was perfect.”

Svurien tells me I must learn to accept these eccentricities and move past them, but it is difficult, Garrion. I was raised a proper Lithmorran daughter, taught the rules of propriety until they became second nature to me. To see them flouted without recourse, to see the Order I have always trusted lashing out with little cause, to see Inquisitors parading about covered in gore, it is all like a bad dream from which there is no waking.

Everything I was taught is being challenged here, and that is harder to accept than anything Fae did to me. At least then, I still knew what my place was, even as she tried to shove me out of it. Here, where the gray areas are so misted with fog they are nearly black, I find myself losing my certainty as to what my place in the social structure is supposed to be.

Look at me. I have been rambling about my own problems and not once have I inquired after your well being. How are you, old friend? How are Reina and the girls? I love the hound you trained for me. He is magnificent and does his job beautifully. Thank you.

I miss you. Please write soon.

Love from,

Saira

Quintilis 25, 373

Quintilis 25, Lord’s Year 373

Before Midnight

“Err, pardon and all, but this sort of labor is too coarse for the Gentry, not to mention we ought to keep it reserved for the folks who do it to live. Might I suggest the Merchants’ Guild?”

Saira stared at the woman, her brows furrowing in consternation, but inclined her head before turning away from the greenhouse door. As she paced through the garden, pausing to gaze at the roses unfurling their petals to the summer sky, she heard someone snigger. Letting her gaze drift back the way she’d come, she caught a glimpse of a maiden. She was a pixie of a thing, with hair the color of spun gold and long-lashed eyes the clear blue of lapis lazuli. Lily fair skin was painted with peach undertones, and her plump lips were hued the ripe red of a freshly picked strawberry. She possessed a frame so slight, Saira was certain the touch of dandelion fluff would shatter her. In short, she was breathtaking.

Or at least, she would have been, had she not been staring at Saira with all the haughty smugness of a princess who had just gotten her way. As she watched, the girl turned and made a show of entering the greenhouse, displaying her pass to the woman who had turned Sai away and pausing in the doorway to glance over her shoulder, smirking.

“Don’t pay any mind to her.”

She turned at the sound of the voice to find an old gardener standing before her. Tall and gangly as a weed, he hunched over a shovel, sharp green eyes peering down at her from beneath bushy gray brows. A wide-brimmed hat was drawn low against the sun, and his brown clothing hung loosely on his gaunt frame.

“Beg pardon?” she queried.

“That’s just Nura,” the gardener said, tipping his head toward the greenhouse door. “Special favorite of whoever makes the rules round here. She likes pickin’ a person to subtly target and make life difficult for ’em. Don’t let it get to ya.”

She let her eyes dance back to the greenhouse door, then to the gardener before her. “It is all right,” she replied. “I suppose the woman there is right. It was something to do, however, when socializing was thin.”

“Belinda tell you to check out the merchant’s guild?” the man asked, straightening and driving his shovel into a bare flowerbed, beginning to turn over the soil.

“She did,” Saira murmured, linking her gloved hands together and gazing pensively down at them. “I suppose freemen merchants will have quite an easy time gaining funds now. Being able to work and sell. An hour in there and they can earn more than what we do in a month.”

The gardener shrugged. “Maybe,” he said. “Maybe that’s Nura’s plan. Still, yer ahead of us, miss, just by not bein’ one of us.”

“Do you believe gentry can be herbalists? Woodworkers? Blacksmiths? Brewers?” she asked, glancing up, her mind following the line of thought that had just laid itself out before her.

“Sure. Ya gentry can be anythin’.”

“If gentry can be herbalists, woodworkers, blacksmiths and brewers, then how do they expect us to do such things without chopping leaves into pieces for compost, making or touching charcoal or using a basket press? If the work is too “coarse” for us, how does it get done?”

The old gardener grunted, peering at her from beneath beetling brows. “Ain’t ya got servants fer all that?”

Saira sighed, sliding her hands into the folds of her skirts and shaking her head, disgusted at the lack of intelligence the common class could show. It was the principle of the matter. How could those trades be acceptable to them if creating the components crucial to or involved in the trade were not? Perhaps she was still thinking the way Fae had taught her to think. Could it be that she was, in this city, truly free of any form of manual labor? Might it be that, while she could not earn coins to help build their estate more quickly, she would never again be pressed into a servitude far below her station?

As she slipped one tiny foot into Bonnie’s cupped hands and allowed her handmaid to boost her into her saddle, she turned this revelation over in her mind. Could she truly be free merely to entertain, write, read, and naught else? She wondered if such an existence would bore her after a time. What would there be to do in the capital when she had but one acquaintance in the entire city? She would need to think on this.

As she clicked to Arjuna and began trotting her way toward the Crossroads, her mind flickered back to the smug girl near the greenhouse. Nura. That one, she decided, would bear watching.