“Mekara,” he whispered softly, “I’ve been watching you. Take my hand. I’m taking you away from here!” Mekara looked up into his face, the sun erupting behind his head, a halo made of glare. “Take it!” Mekara reached up to grasp his soft fingers.
“Take this bucket, Mekara! If you don’t get that water and get back, the matron will whip you!” a jagged voice tore the sun-washed dream from her mind. “Take it!” Kana, her gap-toothed grimace marring a pocked face, thrust the splintered, oaken bucket toward Mekara’s chest. “I did the wet work last time, and I ain’t doing it this un. Get to!” Mekara crossed her arms, a frown settling on her face.
“I mean it,” Kana threatened, holding the bucket with one hand and cuffing Mekara’s face with the other. “I’ll tell if you don’t! You know what happens then!”
“You didn’t even do it last time!” Mekara argued, pushing the bucket away. “You made Corina do it, and you told her you’d tell Mrs. Hell’s Piss about the kittens she’s been sneaking off to play with in the barn after bedtime!” Kana’s eyes narrowed.
“So what of it?” Kana sneered. “I’m biggern you and what I say goes!” Mekara rose up to her full height and leaned forward a little, but Kana just snickered. “Do it!” she said, “Or else!” lifting her fist again. Defeated, Mekara snatched the bucket from Kana’s outstretched hand.
“’Sides,” Kana muttered under her breath, “Ain’t no kitten she’s playin’ with after dark. It’s the butcher’s boy.She's playin' with his kitten alright.” Mekara turned to Kana, fixing her clouded gaze on the bully.
Quietly, she whispered, “She did what you said, but you killed the kittens anyway. We found 'em strung up in the barn. Hung up like laundry, by their necks with their guts tore out!”
“So what if I did?” Kana laughed. “I’ll do that to you, too, if you don’t get busy!” Kana was a full foot taller than Mekara and twice as big. Her fist was as large as an apple, and her knuckles just as red. Mekara sighed.
“One of these days, I’ll kill you,” she muttered.
“What’s that you say?” hissed Kana, her eyes glittering evilly.
“Nothing,” Mekara mumbled, hiking up her skirts and tucking them into her waistband. Gingerly, she waded into the chill waters of the Runa Dart, at the place where the water was lowest. Here, it eddied around moss-covered rocks, separated from its banks by tall reeds. As she waded in, she could hear the splashes of frogs launching themselves into the water at her arrival. She was barefoot, and she could feel the river sediment squishing up between her toes. Her lips curled in disgust. The bucket made a sucking and burping sound as it filled with water. Pulling it out was heavy, and Mekara’s small muscles strained with the weight of it. Still, Kana did not help. She stood upon the bank, her arms crossed against her chest, a self-satisfied smirk on her face. It took twice as long for Mekara to battle the bucket all the way back to the manor, but Kana just sauntered beside her, chewing lazily on the stem of a reed, slapping the back of Mekara’s head while she struggled.
An hour had passed since Kana and Mekara had left the manor to gather water at the Runa Dart. Now, the sun was beginning to wane and the Trippan House rose dark before them, silhouetted against the dying light. As they approached, the mere sight of its towers and barricades filled Mekara with dread. As the two girls came closer, Mekara began to remember the first time she had ever seen its walls. That was five years ago.
“It’s only for a little while,” her governess said. “Your Auntie Mallory wants to see how much you’ve grown!”
“But I don’t like her!” cried the child.
“You don’t even know her, Meme,” the governess tried to soothe her. “Don’t be so disagreeable!” Mekara only wailed harder.
“Look, you’ll stain your dress!” Governess wiped Mekara’s face, her thumbs making reddish impressions on the child’s pale skin. “See? You’re getting tear stains on your bodice!” Governess rubbed the dampened bodice of Mekara’s dress with her rose-embroidered handkerchief. “Hush now! Don’t you want to see Lady Mallory’s fine house? The stables with all the fine horses?”
“I don’t care about the horses!” Mekara wailed. “I don’t care, I don’t care, I DON’T CARE! I want my mommy.”
“Stop this nonsense, Mekara! Stop it! Your mother’s dead. You need to put her out of your mind. Here now,” Governess tucked Mekara’s red strands beneath the lace of her bonnet. “Hide those,” she said. “You don’t want people to see your hair like that the first time they meet you.” For a moment, Mekara stopped crying.
“Why, Nana? Why don’t I want them to see my hair?”
“Well, Meme,” answered Governess, “You want them to like you, don’t you?” Mekara nodded. “There now.” Governess comforted. “Let them get to know you first, then they won’t be so nervous about the color of your hair.” Mekara sniffled. Out of the carriage window, Trippan House rose dark and austere. The child sniffled. The carriage shuddered over the stones leading to the manor.
“Hello!” Lady Helewys Mallory strode quickly down the steps of Trippan House. She bustled past the servants who had lined the stairway leading to the gigantic oak and iron-bound door that now lay open revealing the luxurious atrium of the manor. Inside, the marble floor was polished to a sheen and huge, expensive tapestries hung from the walls. They boasted hunting scenes and lords and ladies dancing to music or having picnics upon lush grass and boating upon placid waters. Tables held vases overflowing with flowers, and painted iron chandeliers crammed with tallow candles were suspended from the ceiling. A curved staircase curled into a balcony upon the upper floor. Maids in identical, pressed dresses stood at attention behind its railing. They looked straight ahead. None of them smiled. A current of relief passed through Mekara when Lady Mallory approached and knelt down before her.
“You must be Mekara!” she said kindly. “I’m so pleased to meet you!” Turning to the Governess, Lady Mallory extended her hand. “I know it’s proper to allow the castellan to greet you and take you to your quarters, and for us to meet more formally at dinner, but I wanted to come and meet you myself.” Lady Mallory had a wide, open smile and welcoming eyes that twinkled when she spoke.
“How kind of you!” said the Governess, her stiff posture melting like ice. “The manor is truly beautiful!”
“My father left it to me,” said Lady Mallory, her eyes never leaving Mekara’s face. “He died ten years ago.” Her eyes clouded and the newly-forming wrinkles on her face became more visible. She must have been somewhere near thirty years old, and her face was just beginning to show signs of wear. “But never you mind,” she said more cheerfully. “Let’s not be sad. You’ve only just arrived! Come,” she reached for the Governess’ arm and motioned for Mekara to follow. “Let me show you the house!”
The small party wandered through the house, their footsteps echoing against the marble floors and bouncing off the stone walls. The sounds made the house seem hollow, regal as it was. Sadness flooded through Mekara, but she could not understand what it meant to feel such things. Behind the child crept a young servant in freshly-laundered clothes. He kept his eyes trained toward the floor. Lady Mallory kept up an even current of prattle with the Governess while Mekara studied the rooms they entered in awed surprise. There were large bedrooms with regal bedsteads draped in velvets and brocades. These rooms had washstands and dressing screens and windows paned with real glass. There were more tapestries than she could count, and framed portraits of various royal looking men and women in unsmiling poses. Up, up, up the stairs the party went, Lady Mallory commenting on this heirloom and that, citing the worth of numerous objects. Sometimes, she would touch the pieces and seem to be reminiscing of their histories. Sometimes, she would tell those histories aloud. When they crested the top stair of the final staircase in the tallest garret of the manor, the party beheld a delightful room with a bedstead covered in rose fabrics. Mekara marveled at the detail in the petals, the brightness of the red flowers and their intricacy. The artisan had even displayed the roses with thorns still on the stems. They seemed so real, Mekara could almost smell them. The roses, like the child's hair, were red. Red as blood.
“Will this be my room?” Mekara asked. Abruptly, the garret fell silent. The young servant whose eyes had rarely left the floor now caught her gaze, his head snapping up with such ferocity that she thought she heard the cracking of his neck like the cracking of a whip. Lady Mallory’s constant chatter stopped suddenly, and her eyes narrowed, their former friendly sparkle turning into an almost hateful glare.
“I like it very much!” Mekara said, though the servant’s eyes implored her to stop. “If I must stay here, I’d like this room,” the child said, more forcefully this time. “Roses are my favorite.”
Governess’ eyes sought Lady Mallory’s and the Lady’s eyes softened somewhat. Her hands brushed nervously against her skirt. “Of course, child,” Lady Mallory said, the bite in her words hidden beneath a layer of honey. “You may have whatever room you like.” The servant boy sucked in a sudden breath, then bit his lip when Lady Mallory glared at him. Turning to Mekara, though still directing her words to the Governess, Lady Mallory said, “I want you to be comfortable during your stay. I want you to be very happy here.” Mekara smiled and took Lady Mallory’s hand in hers.
“I like you,” she said plainly. “I didn’t think I would, but I do.” Lady Mallory smiled indulgently, working her hand from the child’s grip.
“Of course,” she said, not knowing what else to say. “Of course you do.” Lady Mallory finally freed her hand from Mekara's and moved toward the garret’s door. “Well,” she said, stiffly. “That concludes the tour. It’s about time for dinner to be ready. We should get on downstairs. Now.” The Governess followed the Lady from the room. As Lady Mallory passed by him, the young servant trained his eyes immediately to the floor. Mekara took one more long look around the room, then began to follow her Governess out. Before she reached the door, the servant grabbed her forearm so tightly, she thought it might bruise.
“Let go of me!” she said, trying to pull away.
“You should get out,” the young boy hissed.
“You won’t be stayin’ here. Don’t matter what the Lady says,” the boy insisted. “Nobody stays in here no more.” The boy glanced worriedly toward the door, but neither Lady Mallory nor the Governess appeared. “Get out of here. Run if you have to.”
“Get your hands off me,” huffed Mekara. “I don’t like you.”
“You don’t hafta like me,” the boy said. “Just git. Before you can't get out. Before it's too late.”
“Mekara!” the Governess’ voice drifted through the hallway. Wide-eyed, the boy glanced at the door. No one appeared.
“Coming!” Mekara shouted back.
“You,” said Mekara, trying to shake off the boy’s grasp, “are an evil little boy. You’re just jealous of me because I have noble blood.” This, Mekara had learned from her father. She wasn’t sure she knew what “noble blood” meant, but the boy seemed to understand. He dropped her arm and stepped back. She studied him, expecting to find hatred and envy in his face. But his mud-brown eyes were imploring and sincere. As hard as she searched, there was no malice in them.