Brief Synopsis (ATM): A princess, born with a large facial birthmark at the height of the persecution of witches in Europe, is switched with a servant child born the same night. The servant-turned-princess and princess-in-hiding grow up oblivious to the truth of their lineages.
Viviane brushed her hair, grimacing at the amount of straw collecting on her bedroom floor. The evening finally came, and she returned to her rooms for the night. Her mother was nowhere to be seen, no doubt the Queen had her sewing away in her chambers. Viviane diverted the princess but could never stand up to the Queen in the same way without facing retribution.
As more straw fell, Viviane allowed herself to feel mortified for the first time since fleeing the stables. Lord Christian found her sleeping in a horse’s stable, her hair tousled from sleep and not in the flattering way of Lord Christian’s.
More than that, she had not thought to hide her face, her mark, the evidence of some shortcoming within her soul. Her mask lay beside her in the stable, and she realized with a start she left it in her haste to escape his curious gaze.
She stared at herself in the slightly warped looking glass she and her mother inherited from a deceased castle servant in their small room. She plucked more straw from her long dark hair and gently ran a hand over her cheek in the low light of the evening. She did not often look at her reflection, she knew from the whispering and the way everyone avoided her that her looks fell far short of desirable. She was near a monster to many. She kept half the skin of her face masked, a carved wooden plaque worn smooth inside from the oil of her skin. It clung to her face using an earpiece and a strap wrapped around her skull under her hair. It became second nature to her to wear it, as much a part of her body as her arms and legs.
Viviane had been 12 and just begun her training as a servant in the castle when the mask was presented to her from Dianthe. Ever the intuitive one, though it had been far from subtle, she saw the glances, heard the gossip, noticed the sudden discomfort of the girl who lived in relative isolation and shelter by the other servants who sympathized with the girl, a visible representation of their own lack of freedom. She carved the mask from a fallen ash tree.
Ida frowned as Dianthe showed Viviane how to place the mask correctly over her face but said nothing. Viviane held back tears of gratitude, sadness, and relief as she saw her face for the first-time sans the mark, the wood becoming a blank, light brown plane on her face.
Viviane wore it continuously around the castle, easing the minds of the royal family who no longer noticed her under the mask. The only person who maintained suspicion was Friar Heinrich, a tight-lipped, white-haired priest left over from the Roman Inquisition to direct and dictate the religious lives of the royal family and their subjects. He watched her still, steadily, his eyes narrow slits as they followed her around whatever room she entered that he was in. He kept his cross clutched between him and more than once she had seen him muttering in Latin to himself, a prayer, she thought.
She would have to wait until darkness fell to retrieve it. For now, she was confined to her rooms, her chores for the evening delayed. No doubt she would receive a thrashing from the Mistress of Rooms for dodging her duties though the tenants of the castle would be unlikely to notice with the return of Lord Eden and his dashing friend, Lord Christian. The King demanded a ball for his son’s return, as though he needed an excuse to eat, drink, and make merry. The King’s well-known philandering was a thorn in the Queen’s side and the reason no doubt for the smell of whiskey that hung around her gowns Ida brought back to their rooms to repair.
Viviane fell back on the bed she shared with her mother and glanced out the window at the fading light. It was near dusk, perhaps going on seven. Her mother should surely return soon. Her ill health was well noted and the Queen, though demanding, did take care to not wholly exhaust her, allowing her a manservant to carry the garments she packed back and forth and to sit while making certain repairs or projects.
Everard brought by a tray of a venison stew, the soup richly thick and yellow and crumbling pieces of potato emerging from the liquid-like craggy rocks. No steam rose from the bowl so the soup was not fresh and the crusted ring edging the liquid meant it had remained untouched.
Viviane worried her lip, questioning whether she could leave the sanctum of her room, sans mask, to fetch her mother. She absently pulled her braid around from her back, so her hair hung over the marked cheek. She looked in the mirror, her vision obscured on one side, but the mark was hidden. If she kept her face down and avoided eye contact, she could probably pass unnoticed.
A cold sweat erupted on her forehead when the door eased open quietly, and the wisp of her mother’s figure slipped through the crack like smoke. Viviane sighed loudly in relief, and her mother jumped, panicked eyes catching her daughter’s.
“Oh, Viv, my love.” She placed her hand over her heart and sat down lightly on the bed beside her. “You startled me.”
Viviane looked her mother over worriedly. She had dark circles under her eyes, the lines deepened by fatigue, and she was pale. “Everard brought stew.” Viviane gestured to the tray on the table.
Ida visibly blanched before she schooled her features. “I had some toast with my evening tea.” She replied coolly. Viviane was not convinced.
“Please, Mother.” She whispered. Ida sighed and moved to the table, picking up the heavy silver spoon and bringing it filled to her lips. She sipped slowly, then took the bigger bits of stew into her mouth, chewing even slower. It was painful to watch. Viviane’s own stomach rumbled with her own healthy appetite’s demands, and she wished she could reverse her stomach with her mother. Ida ate two more spoons full before laying her spoon aside and leaning back wearily in the chair, her eyes on Viviane apologetic.
The party for Eden’s return carried on deep into the night with no sign of ending as the sunset and the moon rose to take its place, full, bright, and high in the sky. Her father was well renowned for his events, the wine flowed freely like blood was a freshly slaughtered deer, and Everard’s delectable treats were scattered on large trays throughout the ballroom, mysteriously replenished whenever a plate was emptied.
Rose was weary. Her visions often exhausted her, and the one earlier had been particularly vivid. And terrifying. She drummed her fingers against the oak arm of the plush upholstered chair she occupied for most of the evening. She declined to dance with the myriad number of suitors who approached her, each going away disappointed and annoyed.
She had no patience for their frivolous desires tonight. Rose felt Eden’s eyes on her from across the room. Unlike her he constantly danced, flitting from maiden to maiden, no end to his flirtatious smiles. He did not see the red of his blood spilling from his lips, his eyes, his chest. He would not be haunted in his sleep with the knowledge that everyone he loved most was in danger. But he watched her, the worry always under the playful exterior. She knew she had to tell him about the vision. She needed his help to escape the castle, to reach the Sherpardess. It would be her only chance to learn perhaps, of the unseen threat that hung over her family like a storm heavy on the horizon, the static of the lightening prickling the air.
Rose sighed loudly. She looked towards the window, the moon visible in the high arch of the glass pane. It must be nearing midnight. She could escape the party without notice. The party attendees were heavy-lidded with drink and food and lust. King Alessandre was tucked away in one of the curtained cubbies with a young serving maid whose buxom figure was barely concealed under the gray grab all servants wore. Rose saw him slip away several hours ago and did not care to know what was happening beyond that. Queen Ursula had emerged briefly and retired to her rooms shortly after the King’s own disappearance, her face pinched with disapproval, without a single word of goodnight to her daughter.
Briefly Rose wondered if perhaps her family deserved the grisly end her visions portended.
“Ready to retire, sister?” Eden materialized at her side, offering his large palm to her. Rose smiled at him gratefully.
“More than ready.” She replied, taking his hand and rising stiffly to her feet. She was tall, nearly Eden’s height, or as near as any woman could be to his towering frame. He inherited that from his father, the King, another sign of his lineage that could not be denied as the boy grew.
Despite her father’s height, Rose always questioned her own inheritance of that trait. Her mother was slight, the shortest woman she knew, her hair dark. Rose’s curling, blonde locks were often a topic of speculation among the gentry and nobility and needed little incentive to gossip. Ursula wrote it off as a fluke of inheritance from a great, great grandmother who’d been fair-haired. Indeed, a portrait hung in the gallery of an ancient matron of her mother’s line with painted blonde locks, though it was stick straight and a slight dingy hue was washed into it. Rose’s blonde hair was nearly white in streaks and seemed to glow in certain light, especially the light of a full moon.
When pressed on this, Ursula snapped at Rose.
“If you are so undesirous of your place as my daughter and the Crown Princess, please feel free to find a serving girl to trade in your place.”
Rose had not questioned her mother since.
“So, what did you see?” Eden brought Rose back into her body and the chilled night air of the hall they entered from the ballroom.
“What else?” she replied. “I see death. Always.” Her voice was grim, her eyes sparkling with suppressed tears as the vision returned to her. “It must mean something. I have to try to prevent this.”
Eden glanced over his shoulder at the light spilling from the ballroom and the raucous noise with it.
“It must be tonight.” He said. “Under cover of the celebrations, nobody will notice.”
Rose nodded. Of course, it must be tonight. If she waited much longer the visions may cease to be an omen and become a reality. And the party was the perfect distraction for the guards who slipped some wine and maidens from the room and retired to their barracks where the noise rivaled the ballroom’s echoing screams and laughter.
Rose donned a dark roughly woven wool cloak Eden spirited from some unsuspecting servant’s quarters along with the traditional servants’ garb. She raised her eyebrow at him over the fabric, and he shrugged.
“The girl will not mind as long as it is returned by dawn.” He said.
Rose wondered which of his conquests he targeted for the theft. Like his father, he possessed the ability to merely glance at a maiden to capture her heart. Rose hoped this particular similarity to their father would phase out over time.
Dressed in the gown, the cloak over her shoulders, the hood raised to cover her white gold locks Rose could almost believe she was a servant. Almost. She stared at her reflection. She could do nothing about her bearing, the years of etiquette lessons, good food, and medical attention. She slouched her shoulders slightly and thought it would have to do.
Eden wanted to accompany her, but he could not be made to look like a servant, no matter how poorly dressed they could manage to make him. He was too tall, taller than Rose, with glossy black hair too similar to the King’s to mistake otherwise. He would be a target no matter the disguise. Rose would have to go alone. And if she did not return by dawn Eden would raise the alarm and follow. It was the best they could do.
The village lay five miles away, a small collection of stone cottages with thatched roofs, a skimpy market, a smoking blacksmith, and other small services. Many of the servants had family in the village and frequently were seen traveling back and forth to visit. Rose could be one more servant girl going to visit her parents, her sister or brother.
She would need a horse to make the journey and be back before dawn. Promising to be cautious, she left Eden in her rooms, a deterrent to anyone who may check on her in the night, claiming she was ill and would receive no visitors, and made her way quietly to the stable yard. The castle was indeed nearly empty of roaming individuals. The crisp night air bit at her cheeks and bare fingers and she almost reconsidered the journey based on the temperature alone. She was royal and soft, unused to the cold. Or discomfort. But the vision returned to her in full force of the slaughter of her family, and she pressed her lips together in determination. She had to do this, it would be a small price to pay to save them.
Eden told her to take Mariner, the gray-blue stallion favored by her father. He was the fastest and a war horse. He could protect her if threatened. Rose agreed but confronted with his size in person, and the prospect of climbing up that mountain of a back, lest of all having to guide his bulk was daunting. She wished she could saddle her quiet mare, a chestnut named Heather after her favorite flowers to nibble on lazy summer rides. But Heather was not built for speed or protection.
Rose reached out a hand to stroke the muzzle of the sleeping Mariner. His nose twitched at her touch, and he snorted himself awake, moving his feet nervously on the ground at being disturbed so.
“Easy, boy.” Rose coaxed. She patted his nose awkwardly, reaching for the harness hung on his stall door with her other hand. “We are just going to go for a quick trip.”
He whinnied loudly as her hand closed on the metal bit and she jumped back, wildly looking around for anyone who may have heard his cries.
“What are you doing?” A sharp voice cut through the cold night, and Rose squinted into the darkness.
“Who is there?” she replied. A slight figure, shorter than Rose and thinner dressed in the same servant’s dress she wore in disguise stepped forward, not realizing who she addressed, believing her to be another servant in the castle.
“I might ask the same thing.” The girl said, stepping into the low burning torchlight of the sconces. It was the seamstress’ daughter. The girl with the mark. Rose shrunk back, sure she would recognize her. “What are you doing with the King’s horse?” she repeated, her voice cautious but firm.
Rose desperately searched for an excuse to make the girl go away, but she could not explain what she needed Mariner for, why a servant girl would be in the stables past midnight at all. Except…
“I agreed to meet a beau here,” she blurted. She had not grasped the bridle. The girl need not know she intended to take the horse. “I merely was calming the beast who was startled by my presence. Perhaps her maidenhood would be enough to drive the girl away for fear of her own reputation.
The girl raised an eyebrow, glancing from her to the horse who was still snorting in agitation. “A beau?” she repeated cynically. She glanced behind her noting the empty stable doorway.
“Yes, a beau,” Rose replied defensively. She crossed her arms in defiance. Who was this girl to challenge her? She was a servant, same as Rose was pretending to be. Except Rose was not a servant. She was the Crown Princess, and all the authority of her birth was hers to command even in disguise. She stood to her full height and raised her chin.
“Should you not return to your mother? Why are you roaming the stables at midnight? Certainly not to meet a man yourself.” Rose said. It was cruel, and she knew it, regretted it, but needed the girl to leave so she could be on her way.
The girl, Viviane, she thought her name was, cringed visibly. She seemed to shrink smaller, and she tipped her head forward, so her hair fell more in her face to hide the deformity. “I lost something here earlier.” She said, her voice subdued. I only meant to fetch it and return to my quarters.”
The girl fell silent, her eyes on her feet. Rose felt her heart thudding in her chest in impatience. “Well, get it and be gone. I don’t want you here when my…lover arrives.” She almost choked on the word, images of the servant girl her father disappeared with flitting through her mind.
Viviane glanced up, her eyes darting to Mariner’s stall. “I left it in there, madam.” She replied addressing her as an elder though Rose believed they were the same age.
“In his stall?” Curiosity crept into Rose’s mind, and she squinted at the girl.
“Yes, I often spend time with him in my free time. The stables are usually warmer than the servants’ quarters as you know.” Viviane replied, moving forward slowly to slip by Rose and enter Mariner’s stall. Rose noted how he did not react to her presence as he had to Rose, turning to sniff her hair and clothing. Viviane pulled a carrot from her cloak and fed it to him before bending to sort through the hay on the ground.
“Of course, I know,” Rose replied. “That is why I decided to have my liaison here.” She started to tap her foot, watching the girl sift the straws slowly, searching in the low light.
Finally, she stood, a flat piece of wood clutched triumphantly in hand. She put it to her face, under the curtain of hair that shielded her, looping a leather strap around her ear and over her hairline. She turned back to Rose, the mask in place and smiled shyly, sadly.
“My apologies.” She bowed her head and exited the stall, stroking the gray hair on the horse’s flank as she left. He sniffled after her, attempting to follow but stopped but the stall door closing back on him. He shook his head and cried again, his voice shrill and panicked.
Rose jumped back again, annoyed, impatient, and scared.
Viviane looked back, noting Rose’s agitation with the stallion.
“Perhaps you should pick another location in the future. Mariner can be particular in who he trusts.” Viviane offered before bowing her head again and scurrying from the stables.
Rose frowned at her, the horse still whinnying shrilly in her ear.
“Please, beast.” She pleaded after Viviane’s shadowy figure disappeared down the corridor in the stable yard. “I need your help.”
Rose reached a hand out to his nose and attempted to calm him again, stroking the length of his nose. The girl gave him a carrot. Rose glanced around the stable and saw a bag of dried apple slices propped against a post. She picked up the bag and shook it at him, quieting the horse’s noises with the promise of more midnight snacking.
Rose smirked and grabbed the bridle, sneaking an apple slice into his mouth before looping the leather straps over his mouth and ears, forcing the cold metal bit into his mouth. He shook his head and rearranged his jaws to chew his treat over the bar, laying his ears back irritably. Rose worried that the horse would allow her to ride him past the castle gate, least of all ten miles to the village and back.
She managed to saddle him with bribes of apple slices and led him from the stable to the yard, leading him by yanking on his bridle and waving an apple in front of his nose interchangeably. In the yard, she turned a bucket over and took a deep breath.
“Alright, Rose.” She said to herself. “You can do this.” She looked up at the towering horse, crunching quietly on his final treat and then towards the dark farmlands surrounding the castle. The Sherpardess waited for her out there, an answer, perhaps the end to her disturbing visions waited for her. Having no other options, she blew out her breath and climbed on the bucket to hoist herself over the giant horse’s back, settling into the saddle and knocking her heels on his flanks as they took off on a trot into the darkness.