“Well, there is one man who comes into the kitchens every so often and—”
“Fancy ‘im, do you, hmm?”
“No!” The older woman covered her eyes, the tops of her ears burning. “No, it’s actually the opposite.”
The shorter woman’s brows rose in confusion as she passed her completed section of the tapestry down to another embroiderer.
The first woman leaned forward in the dim light to see her own embroidery better. “It’s a long story,” she said, and the words came out like a sigh.
“I have time,” the second woman replied, unable to keep the sass out of her voice fully. She waved both hands around at the crowded room. “We all have time, don’t we, ladies?”
A chorus of “Aye!”s rose throughout the room, though only half or so of the other women even bothered to look up from their work, all of which was in various states of finish.
Some of the workers were adding the final touches to the royal cape that one of the sisters would wear for her coronation. Others were just cutting the soft leather for each of the princesses’ boots, which would be regal but simple, the steward had directed.
Embarrassed, the dark-haired woman sat up straighter in her high-backed chair, her embroidery in her lap.
“I was helping in the kitchens a couple of nights ago,” she began slowly, aware that all ears were attune to her words. “One of the nobles came through wanting hot tea. He and I…” She trailed off, shaking her head as if to clear it.
Looking down at her hands, she took a deep breath. “He and I were friends in our younger days,” she continued, “but he was a noble and I was a merchant’s daughter, and, though our families were both relatively well-off, our circles of influence were much separated.
“For a while, I thought he knew everything, or almost everything, and it was just as well because he certainly acted like he knew everything.” The woman ran a hand through her dark hair, her voice moving from wistful to matter-of-fact. “Debating with him was fun… until it became arguing and I just wanted to be friends for a while… But ‘intellectual discourse’ was his way of having fun, and so we grew apart.
“There was one night before we went our separate ways that we might’ve had a roll in the hay, but even that was his idea and I cut it off halfway through in tears because I didn’t know how to say ‘Stop’ without making a mess of things.”
“He’s a noble,” one of the women at the far end of the room pointed out.
The woman in the chair nodded. “And there was that. Saying ‘No’ to a noble isn’t exactly commonplace, and saying ‘No’ as a commoner is even less common, even as a merchant’s daughter.” She paused for a minute, lost in thought, until the short woman nearby cleared her throat.
“Anyway,” the storyteller continued, “he was almost as out of his element that night as I was, and the entire evening was aborted, never to be spoken of again. He went on to his life, and I went on to mine, an our paths didn’t cross much after that…”
“…until the other evening,” one of the younger women finished for her.
The first woman nodded. “We’d seen each other and been cordial, and he sometimes came through the kitchens specifically for hot tea. Whenever he arrived, my blood began to race and I couldn’t look him in the eye. I would have to sit down to avoid a fainting spell or losing my last meal into a slop bucket. His very presence and all that he represented to me—the self-serving, arrogant nature of the ruling class—made me physically ill… and it wasn’t lovesickness. It was just… sickness.”
She fell silent again, looking down at her hands thoughtfully. The short woman nudged her with an elbow, jarring her back into the present.
“He came through the kitchens last evening for tea, as always,” she remembered aloud, “but this time was different.”
“How?” someone at the back of the room asked, half impatient for the climax of the story.
“He has brought with him his Master!” The room was quiet enough to hear the carriages outside passing by. “And the funny thing was, his Master was a woman!” Suddenly, the room exploded into a frenzy of disbelief, half of the women not able to believe that a noble would become a journeyman to any other person and half unable to comprehend that a man would apprentice himself to a woman.
When the room was relatively quiet again, the dark-haired woman said, “He didn’t act any different, but the woman he’d brought took to me immediately, and before they left, she and I were teasing him, and he was letting us!”
A flurry of laughter and questions erupted and the the embroiderer had to wait for relative calm again before she could be heard over the noise again. “He asked for tea, and I told him—as I told him every time he came through the kitchens—that tea was boring, especially when he, as a noble, could ask for any type of food or drink and expect to receive it. The lady Master agreed with me, chiding him for not taking full advantage of his position, and then, as if to prove her point, she requested hot chocolate.”
Some of the women listening gasped at the sheer decadence of such a request, and the woman smiled and said, “She winked at me to let me know that she was playing, leaned forward conspiratorially, and said, ‘He drinks tea all day, poor man. You’d think he’d live a little, right?’ I had set about preparing their requests, and I grinned a little, winked back, and said, ‘Yes, ma’am, you’d certainly think.’ In that moment, she healed a part of me without even realizing it.”
This post is part of Flash Fiction February.