She'd ripped apart her silk petticoat before realizing the bed sheet would make a better maids head-covering. What kind of maid would have a silk bonnet?
But now, her hair was covered (braiding really was harder then it looked--she'd just stuffed it up there as best she could) and her dress smoothed, even if it did smell rather moldy and damp; and Miera was on her way. Only, her shoes were obviously too fine. And she'd forgotten to take of her ermine necklace, now a discernible lump underneath her outfit. Oh well. It would have to do, at least until after lunch, when her brother would be off. And me back in a corset.
She opened her door again, changed her room card to "Ill, no disturbances" and began her trek down the hall, her own laundry basket clutched, white-knuckled, in her palms.
Gosh, this thing sure is heavy. Feels like I'm carrying a horse. How do they lift these all day?
The hall was stirring at last, filling with a few sleepy-looking maids who were lethargically making their rounds, knocking on doors, delivering tea, and zigzagging around Miera like she was a piece of forgotten, but ill-placed, furniture. She tried to make her body and laundry burden smaller, but the basket was very cumbersome and she had never attempted, or even been allowed, to carry anything this weighty before.
I'm as clumsy a maid as a princess, she snickered to herself as she eased the door to the servants stair open with her left thigh.
At least she knew the hall well. Sort of. She'd been sneaking down this stair often, for at the bottom rested the library, and the servants back-end way was the quickest route to her books. From her predecessors letters, Miera knew the best times to use the stair: early mornings they were all but vacant--or, if she pleaded a headache, she could spend her lunch or dinner hour alone in the library, when all the servants were eating in the kitchen. On the main floor, if she didn't use the stairs, she'd have to wait for a chaperone to take her past the drawing rooms and dinning hall to get anywhere close to the library, and only if the chaperone was in the mood to visit, of course. The common practice was to have the instructor bring you books instead of fetching them yourself--but Miera had learned quickly that her tutors bland offerings, while full of courtly wisdom and matronly insight, lacked in adventure and romance.
But today was different. She wasn't going to library, and she definitely wasn't alone. The stairs were teaming with servants, and it looked like morning had begun. Miera saw three or four girls, much younger then herself, carrying larger baskets with apparent ease. She straightened her back and followed them.
Two existed the stairs at the kitchens, but the other two carried laundry like Miera. She followed them. She knew she'd have to deposit her own laundry in the washroom (a place she'd never seen) and then, somehow, find her way to the church where her brother's ceremony would be held and wait until noon to see him off. So, she'd surmised that by following other laundry maids she wouldn't appear out of place. As long as she did exactly what they did and stayed out of sight.
The girls ahead of her were laughing and chatting to themselves and didn't seem to realize Miera was eying them. They existed the stairs and began to walk briskly down a corridor that Miera had never ventured on, that lead, after a few twists and turns, to the back of the castle somewhat near the kitchens, from the smell of things.
"Here, I'll hold the door for you," Said one of the maids, hoisting her bundle to her left arm and, letting Miera slip though. Miera smiled uncertainly, and bobbed her head in thanks.
"You must be new, eh?" Said another laundress, her black eyes winking at Miera's green ones, "Your not to talkative."
"Y-yes." Said Miera, carefully. "Today is my first day."
"Got'cha on laundry already!" The elder of the two laughed, and eased her way up to Miera's left side, adjusting her bundle so she could walk next to her. The blond girl, the one who had held the door, strode up to her right. "And how do 'er highness panties smell?" She asked, wrinkling her nose at her own package.
Miera tired to hide her shock.
How do my panties smell? What does she mean... she thought, confused by the maid's frank question, blinking back her confusion in the budding sunlight. In the silence, she noticed that her feet clipped oddly on the gravel path next to the other girl's cloth shoes, and that she could already see the steam rising off the roof of the laundry house at the end of the walkway.
"Well, I don't know." She said, a few moments later, "I don't want to smell them."
The younger girl, who looked about ten or eleven, snickered. "They probably smell like lavender and roses, that being female laundry you've got there. I've got Sir Walters knickers in my bag, and now, those don't smell so fine."
The elder girl nodded, a dark curl escaping her cap. "The worst is the babies linens. Just you wait." She turned and smiled at Miera for a moment, but suddenly stopped right in her tracks.
"Gah, girl, what are you wearing on your head?" She said. Miera didn't know if her eyes were giggling or about to breathe fire. "And your dress! Who did you get it from, your grandmother?"
Miera stopped, her cheeks flaming. "I--I..."
"Oh 'Neitha, seriously," Interrupted her blond counterpart, "She's probably from the poor house. Did you come in the transfer yesterday?"
Miera didn't know what else to do but nod
The raven-haired girl that Miera now knew was named 'Neitha hoisted her laundry basket higher and took a step back, her eyes roaming Miera's person. Miera shifted uncomfortably.
What do I do in this situation? Do I run?
The thought that servants would actually talk to her hadn't crossed her mind. The maids had never really spoken more then "Yes'm or No'm" in her presence before this point.
"Oh, look at her shoes," Squealed 'Neitha, "Now, I know a Lord had to have given you those. What'd he do, take all your other finery after he was done with you?"
Miera, still confused, was about to nod when a tall figure suddenly rounded the path, her arms loaded with laundry.
"What are you girls doing?"
It was a matron. All three maids jumped as if on cue, Miera most of all.
"Get your loads to the laundry at once, and don't let me see you dallying about again, or it'll be the marks for ya!"
"Yes'm!" They chorused, and Miera found herself suddnely panting to keep up with 'Neitha's bobbing shoulders as they all sprinted towards the laundry.
At the door 'Neitha nodded to Miera. "Do what I do, new girl." She said, and Miera could have hugged her in relief if he arms weren't so full. She placed her basket in the corner, where two sweaty adolescent boys were sorting, and then followed the blond girl to another corner where a big bored with tiles rested. She took two tiles from one side and hung them on another bored.
"Whose you got?" She asked Miera, and Miera mumbled her own name. Another tile joined the rows.
The steam in the laundry room wafted around Miera like thick fog, obscuring most of her view. She saw a line of women, with red arms and stringy hair scrubbing vigorously, and beyond them, a courtyard with lines for drying.
Then 'Neitha grabbed her hand, with a whispered, "come on, do you want to get us all in trouble again?" suddenly they were all back outside and passing the matron on the way back to the castle.
The castle looked so different from this side. No gilded fences or plots of roses, or even a cobblestone path. Just rocks and gravel and various building that all looked well-used.
Once inside 'Neitha pulled both Miera and her blond counterpart into what looked like a broom closet. They were both grinning from ear to ear, while Miera tried to hold her sides in as they felt about to split from all that running.
"Here, I gotcha something." Said the elder 'Neitha. She pulled from her dress a clean white cap and starched apron. "They keep the spares in the laundry. Did ya leave yours in your bunk, or something?"
Miera opened her mouth to speak, when the blond girl pulled the hastily tied piece of bed-sheet of her head, causing her ruby locks to spill around her shoulders.
"Gah, you've a ton of hair! Red like fire. No wonder some lord took a fancy to you!"
The two maids then carefully braided and covered her hair, and helped her into her apron.
"There you go, New Girl. Now you won't get tossed out on your first day and be put out into the streets." And Miera could only smile, because she didn't know what to say.
Stay tuned for the next part: Surprise!