Not to mention looking overseas and seeing unbridled brutality and injustice that seems to not fear reprisal or exposure to the eyes of the world. The brutality, injustice isn't new nor is it unique to that country, but it is horrific all the same. Watching it has definitely impacted my mental health and ability to write.
Closing up this pre-chapter note, I want to state something and I may get some flack from some of my readers (I hope my readers are not the sort to do so though): Black Lives Matter.
Chapter 21: Style, Strays & Stories
It was finally Thursday morning and I’d found myself bouncing off the walls as I flipped back and forth between anxious apprehension and hesitant, hopeful excitement. Going by the expressions of my minder she was halfway between annoyed and amused at my behavior.
I’ve started out of place. Sorry, let's rewind a bit back to yesterday for context.
After my talk with the Duchess, I was left alone to decompress and process until a new maid appeared to replace Gael Silvertail, breakfast held on a brightly polished silver tray. A convalescent’s breakfast. Bone broth. Crisp bread. Peeled and sliced fruit. And finally a vial of a vile tongue curdling ‘rejuvenative’ tonic. All of which I ate sitting up in bed under the watchful eye of the replacement maid, I guess the Healer had left orders on her way out.
Once I’d downed the tonic and eaten the rest of the meal afterwards as a chaser, I was finally let out of bed for some assisted exercise walking up and down the corridors and allowed to use the bath chamber off the bedroom. To bathe, clean up and use what constituted as a toilet.
Honestly I didn’t mention it earlier, but I was pretty thankful not to be squatting behind a bush or into a chamberpot.
If you really wanted to know the castle had plumbing for sewage, but water for drinking or for baths had to be carted throughout the castle via buckets by a workforce of servants. The toilet was basically a stone basin that funneled waste into the plumbing with a lacquered wooden seat and lid. Flushing seemed to be a practice reserved for solid waste or if there was a smell and was done by pouring an entire bucket into the basin.
Likewise the bath was filled using buckets of water and heated by dangling a device that resembled an orb of steel filigree woven around a glowing orange gem into the bath’s water where it would release its stored charge of magic as heat directly into the water. I imagine it was pretty expensive, going by how it was fastened to the side of the tub via a thin chain like it was someone's prize pocket watch.
After my bath, I was put back in bed with a book for entertainment until dinner. It seemed sleeping half a week wasn’t considered rest enough.
The sun was only just beginning to dip down below the surrounding mountains when dinner was served, I would have considered it early, if I wasn’t already pretty hungry by the time it came around. Since Breakfast I’d been only provided sliced fruit and tea and if I was meant to have had lunch I had somehow missed it between my supervised walks, bathing and enforced bedrest.
Dinner was more substantial than my breakfast and consisted of moderate serving of already sliced roast meat and vegetables and given how hungry I was I can’t say it lasted very long.
Then after dinner was cleared away, I was allowed out of bed for yet another walk and to use the facilities in the bath chamber, before hoping back into bed.
If all that sounded pretty boring, it's because it was boring. Gods help me! I am trapped in a VRMMO and instead of going on adventures I am trapped in bed being given the full hospital experience.
At least once I was back in bed or well shortly after, I received a reason to be excited.
Roxi had replied!
I might have broken a record with how quick I opened up the chat window.
Roxadice Umbrial: Okay… That definitely sounds like a story I need to hear and nice try, you’re not getting out of our chat. :P I see you thursday night! Don’t go getting into any trouble beforehand.
So anyway, where was I?
Oh right! Thursday morning.
Wait, did I message her back?
Of course I messaged her back! Then I began work on reacquiring my sleep debt as I tossed and turned all night, both too rested and too excited to fall asleep. Those tightly tucked sheets from the day before had been pulled loose and tangled up at my feet from all my thrashing and rolling about.
When the sun finally rose Thursday morning I was a little tired, but surprisingly not exhausted as I thought I would be. That said, after Enfys the Chief Healer popped by and cleared me for more physical activity, I was up and bounding around.
I even let the swarm of maids accost me again as they bathed and dressed me for the day. My lilac peasant dress had been thoroughly ruined by my ill planned excursion, causing me to receive a light scolding from the maidriarchy before they revealed the voluminous garment they planned to entomb me in.
Outnumbered as I was, I had no choice but to allow them to dress me once again and listening to them extol the dress's virtues as they dressed me I managed to pick up a few technical descriptors.
The garment they were dressing me in resembled something out of a period piece set prior to the War of Independence that they called a tea dress.
It seemed to be mostly made out of floral patterned, powder blue cotton fabric that was tight around the arms, shoulders, chest and waist before it flared out at the hips into a floor length skirt that would give the Liberty Bell a run for its money. The dress’s neckline came in the form of a square window that framed the top of my breasts, which was an entirely new and somewhat embarrassing experience. And my hands were buried in a sea of lace where the tight sleeves exploded out into a mass of delicate fabric that I’d be challenged to not drag through anything.
I honestly think the Duchess’ staff dressed me in it to prevent me running off again, that and running or even moving anything at all very fast.
It was beautiful though, I had to admit looking at my reflection in the mirror the maids had pulled me before. Beautiful enough, that I barely wondered if it was lead and mercury backed or if they had worked out silvering, until after I was pulled away to sit at the table in the shared sitting room to eat breakfast as they brushed my shaggy short hair.
* * *
I was still eating when the maids, having finished brushing my hair, filed out of the room and a more memorable member of their cohort stepped inside to replace them. A maid with silver hair and silver furred cat ears and tail to match. Gael Silvertail.
“You didn’t say you were a Princess,” the girl said wearing a cattish smile as she crossed the room’s threshold.
“Pwrenchess?” I asked around a mouthful of oats and cream. Swallowing, I tried again, “I’m not a princess.”
“You’re certainly dressed like one,” she teased, slowly circling the table where I was eating as she took in what I was wearing from all angles. “The Duchess must have taken a shine to you, given that you're wearing a product of her personal dressmaker. Teasing aside, it is beautiful. Not that you’d get me into one of those, I’d much prefer to keep my freedom of movement.”
Noticing that my gaze had wandered away from my meal to the simple maid’s dress she was wearing, she giggled.
“I know what you’re thinking and unlike your dress, this one is much easier to move around in. I don’t have to worry about capsizing if my skirt catches on something a meter away,” Gael explained before her ears flattened a little. “Not that I didn’t fight back, when mom and my senior first tried getting me into this instead of a pair of trousers. On that note, if you find yourself in the sights of Lady Povey when she is on the warpath, do yourself a favor and surrender unconditionally. Unless you’d prefer any future medicine or potions you need tasting worse than a bar of soap.”
It could taste worse!? That was something I definitely didn’t want to experience.
“Ah… Gael right? My friend Roxi who I arrived with is coming back tonight sometime, but is there something I can do in the meantime? I take since they dressed me up, I’m allowed to do more today, than sit in bed aside for when I’m allowed out for walkies with a minder?”
“Oh sure! While I am sure they would prefer you stayed in the castle and you’re not really dressed for the city, we can go almost anywhere as long as it's in the castle. So there are a couple nice gardens other than the entrance courtyard, plus a greenhouse on the roof, then there is the library, the armory, the training grounds, I could show you the maid quarters and my swords,” she said with growing excitement.
It was clear she found the more martial parts of the castle the most exciting.
“Oh, oh, yes! There is the south-east tower! Not only is the view amazing, but there is a near constant air current that washes over it from a gap between two of the mountains. If you time it right you can launch a wad of spit almost all the way to the other side of the valley! Oh but we should probably postpone doing that until you’re wearing something less likely to catch the wind like a sail. I’m not sure you would land on your feet after being blown from the battlements.”
“Y’know what? That does sound kind of fun, I can’t remember the last time I did something like that,” I replied. Probably years ago. After running away and later between trying to be self dependent and dodging cops, I’d had to prematurely grow up. I’d missed the opportunity to spend my teen and early adult years messing around and acting like a kid.
“But…” I began, gesturing at my tea gown, “given how I’m dressed, we should probably stick to seeing the other stuff.”
Despite her somewhat rough, possibly abrasive personality or maybe even because of it, we fell into a sort of comfortable companionship as I explored the castle. I wouldn’t call us friends, yet, but if we hung out much more feel it was probably an inevitable outcome. Underneath that maid exterior was definitely a kindred spirit, a rough and wary toughness that hadn’t yet been softened much by having a secure safe roof over her head and a reliable three meals a day.
If you expected Gael to be deferential towards me, like how the class relationship our outfits definitely implied you’d be wrong. Instead of the servant noble relationship they would normally, the boundaries of who was in charge were so blurred you could probably blow them away like they were smoke. Too anyone watching the casual way we were interacting was closer to that of two young women who were peers or friends rather than anything else.
That was unless I knocked something over with my ridiculously wide skirt or got it caught on something, which I’d done probably more than I can admit to without embarrassment. Gael was quick to jump in and give me tips and sharp instructions on how to handle my dress, how to hold my hands as I moved and how to practice moving slowly with careful and delicate movements.
We’d already visited the library, as well as popping by the maid’s quarters before lunching in one of palaces' many garden courtyards. I may have gotten a little testy, after her third intervention. This time freeing my dress from where it had snagged on a rose thorn when I failed to properly distance myself from one of the immaculately trimmed flowering bushes in the Palace greenhouse.
We’d arrived at yet another space that could be loosely described as a courtyard, it was three floors up from the castle’s entrance and located in an alcove the size of a streetside basketball court facing out onto the battlements.
“You’re lucky you don’t have my— I mean Lady Povey instructing you. You probably can’t imagine the boot camp like instruction she put me through. She could give some of the Mercenary Captains I worked under a run for their money. ‘I’m pretty sure I told you to move gracefully like a butterfly Gael, not swagger about like a ruffian!’ She might be a strict teacher and parent, but I wouldn’t trade her for anyone else,” Gael shyly smiled.
The way she talked about the healer who had adopted her reminded me of Ms Mitchells who had taken me in in a similar manner and… Sighing, I looked up towards the training grounds and the sound of wood cracking on wood as knights trained with wooden swords striking at wooden posts or on the other side of the courtyard, on other wooden swords or plate and mail armor as three pairs sparred.
And ok… I was again wondering if I had made the right choice leaving her care to become independent.
Those thoughts weren’t healthy. I had a lot of potential ‘what if’s in my life and if I let them ensnare me I’d be trapped unable to continue moving forward and plagued with indecision.
“Sooo… How did you two… How’d she wind up picking up a stray like you? I mean if I am somehow wrong and she is not a noble, despite how she is dressed and don’t go bringing up how I’m dressed. Umm right, so even if she ain’t a noble she is pretty damn important, so what’s the story?” I enquired as we started walking back.
“It was a couple years before the Duke died and every titled cunt decided they wanted to be top dog, there was yet another minor conflict. These things happen every couple of years on the island, reliable and often well paying work if you’re a merc and happen to pick the right side,” she said, miming rubbing two coins together.
“But what happens if you pick the losing side?” I asked somewhat naively.
Scratching the back of her head, the maid grimaced. “Well if you’re lucky you survive and still get paid, we aren’t paid enough to fight to the death. Good chance though if your side loses, that instead of payment your employer will send troops to chase you away. If you’re really unlucky... Let’s just say there aren’t many old mercs, you either retire before you start to slow or die.”
“How can they get away with that? Why would anyone work as a mercenary then?”
“Who is going to tell the presumably noble employer off? Who is going to care? Most think we’re little more than bandits, a lot of merc bands are little more than bandits,” she laughed bitterly. “As for why become a merc? Most can’t do any other job or never had the opportunity to. It’s a right mix of orphans, the odd pickpocket or horse thieves who had to skip town with the guards on their heels, former soldiers who know nothing else, deserters and the occasional exiled or fallen noble. I’ve probably missed a few types.”
I could only guess which of those circumstances applied to her, but I absolutely wasn’t going to make her unearth whatever potentially painful past she was obviously dancing around.
But if I had to guess I would go with orphan and probably pickpocket, since she didn’t look far off my age and that ruled out being a soldier and or deserter before she became a mercenary. Not to mention her roughness and her adoptive mother’s need to put her through smoothen her out with boot camp like training for manners and courtly sophistication pretty much ruled out fallen or exiled noble. I’d guess pickpocket or horsethief because I know what it was like to survive as an orphan in a rough place, the mercs probably drafted her after she tried to pickpocket one of them or steal their bread.
“Ok I get it! Stupid question. Sorry, let's get back to the story.”
“Where was I?” she murmured, looking lost for a moment as she tried to backtrack to her initial point before I derailed her with questions.
“There was yet another minor conflict?” I offered.
“Right. Ok, so this time down at the Parcosia-Arlenian border. Thing started as a dispute over some grazing lands between a pair of pampered fuckface Barons. I think they were cousins and there was some inheritance a couple generations back or something. Anyway, ‘hole show rapidly escalated and destabilised until both Duchies were flinging shit at each other from one end of the border to the other. Y’know like cause fuck diplomacy right?”
“Well the company I was running with had been hired by Parcosia. So there we were stationed on the border, fighting with the highland’s western slopes to our right. Things were actually going pretty alright so far, well considering how jobs can go. Anyway it was just our crappy luck that a messenger came riding in with new commands from our employer.” Gael gave an exaggerated sigh for drama’s sake and then mimed wrapping a noose around her neck.
“Apparently before they’d escalated the conflict into the shitstorm it had become, their Chief Healer had wandered off looking for some rare herb that only grows in a single valley or some shit. Fucking problem was that the valley in question was fucking to the south of us and not to mention behind the nearest Arlenian position. We wound up on a shitty sleepless, bloodbath of a four day excursion across the border fighting our way to her and then running back to safety with six fucking times our number chasing.” Her eyes seemed to glaze over slightly and her tail bristled as she recounted the mission.
Blinking as if to clear her vision, she continued. “Afterwards she stuck around at the front and started plying her trade healing Parcosian soldiers and mercs alike. Bosses decided she needed a bodyguard and a lady in waiting if she was going to hang around and cause some fuckhead thought it would be funny, I landed the job. Ha ha ha,” she growled.
“Interesting story, what happened next?” I asked, almost knocking over an expensive vase with a wayward elbow.
Ok, fine. I did actually knock it over. Almost broke it, too. Well I would have if Gael hadn’t been minding my elbows even though I wasn’t and sprung in front of me to grab the vase out of the air with cat-like reflexes as it toppled from the pedestal.
“The rest is between me and her,” she replied evasively, still holding the vase as her tail warily swished back and forth behind her.
“Why—” I began to reply before she cut me off.
“And… If you want the rest of the story you’re just going to have to ask her, unless you want to pay me a dynasty of silver thrones. Also elbows in! Wrists should be floating at your sides with fingers pointed away from you all dainty like, unless you’re gently grasping your skirt to curtsy, sit or to gracefully avoid catching it on something,” she lectured as she carefully returned the vase to its home.
I know she meant well and they weren’t a personal attack, but the corrections were again grating on my nerves and I couldn’t help petulantly grumbling under my breath and glaring at her. “I wonder what Lady Povey would think about the colourful language you used in front of a guest just now,” I mock-threatened.
Smirking in reply, the former mercenary was more than prepared to call my bluff. “You’re welcome to tell her if you want. You can receive these lessons from her instead, while I’m up to my elbows scrubbing toilets clean.”
“No thank you,” I hastily responded as we rounded a corner coming into sight of the entrance to Roxi and I’s assigned guest suite.
“I thought not,” she replied with some smugness reaching for the suite’s heavy door and then opening it up to reveal the sitting room.
Before I could move to enter, a voice cried out my name from inside and moments later I found myself face first with a pillar of black cloth and leather as it collided into me, before I felt strong arms wrap around my back and pulled me deeper into the soft pillar.
“Are you alright? What happened? You were unconscious for days? I rushed here as soon as I could, I was so worried!”
Her chest muffled my voice as I tried to reply.
“Oh right! Sorry!” she apologised as she stepped back. Looking up at her face I caught her blushing.
“I’m alright. Kinda… I’ll get into that later when we’re alone. I'm sorry I worried you,” I guiltily whispered down to the floor, unable to meet her gaze. “Can we move inside before we continue?”
“We?” she asked before noticing the maid she had missed in the excitement. “Who is she?”
“Greetings. You must be the honorable priestess of Ruin and our honored guest Roxadice Umbrial. My name is Gael Silvertail, one of the Duchess’s maids at your service,” she curtsied before adding with a mischievous grin, “I have been charged with minding this one and ensuring she does not engage again in behaviour that will require our Chief Healers attention.”
Roxi’s head turned like a whip to face me, expression equal parts worry and exasperation, as her gaze bored into me.
“What did you do this time!?”
Illegal Alien is a canon story in QuietValerie's Troubleverse setting. Make sure you read Quietvalerie's Trouble with Horns, her second Troubleverse story Witch of Chains and ChiriChiriChiri's Troubleverse story Snowbound.
The Troubleverse & Kammiverse have their own discord where you can talk to other readers and the various authors including myself and QuietValerie.