The Royal Companion(8)

By: Tanya Bird

The women’s eyes swept over them. They nodded and said something courteous that did not match their tones. Then they returned their disinterested faces to their books.

Fedora exited through a different door, signalling for the girls to follow her. They entered the sleeping quarters where there were two rows of beds dressed in white linen. Aldara thought of her bed at the farmhouse, which had been dressed in exactly two blankets, one which provided warmth, and the other so worn it was pointless. She did not know any farming family who could afford to use linen on their beds. When they could afford linen, it was used for undergarments and shirts. Dahlia used the scraps to make aprons and pillows.

Aldara thought back to the cold season Kadmus had lost one of his blankets to their plough horse. The horse became sick with heaves, and the thought of losing the horse had Dahlia in a silent panic. Kadmus was wished the horse a quick recovery, or death, whichever got the blanket back the quickest. The horse recovered, but inconvenienced him by taking weeks to do so. They had been fortunate enough to have mattresses stuffed with wool from their own sheep, which provided more warmth than the straw used by most people.

‘You will sleep here,’ Fedora said, pointing to the two closest beds.

Hali took a few steps forwards and placed her bag next to one of the beds. She ran her hand across it, enjoying the luxurious feel of it beneath her hand. Aldara resisted the temptation to do the same.

‘Meals are served in the front room where we entered,’ Fedora continued. ‘If your duties cause you to miss a meal, you can eat in the kitchen downstairs. The kitchen maids are very accommodating as they understand the unpredictable nature of your duties. You are not, however, permitted to eat in the hall, unless you are invited to do so by a member of the royal family or one of their guests. Usually, such an invitation will come through me. I suggest you limit your time outside of these quarters for now. Wandering about can be problematic for those who are still learning.’ She paused to make sure the girls understood. ‘Herbal tea will be provided with your meals. All Companions are required to drink it, regardless of their duties.’ Another, much longer pause. ‘There are robes at the end of your beds. Take them with you to the bathing room, which is through that door. When you are done, meet me in the dressing room. I will find something appropriate for you to wear for your chores.’

Hali looked up. ‘Chores, my lady?’

It was the first time Aldara had seen Fedora blink. It was done with perfect restraint.

‘Yes, Hali. Everyone contributes in their spare time, and you will have plenty.’

Hali could not hide her disappointment. ‘But we are Companions, not maids.’

Fedora’s eyes glowed a little brighter, but the rest of her remained perfectly still. ‘At the moment you are nothing. An uneducated commoner, unworthy of even serving food to guests. Do not confuse Archdale with the whorehouse in your village. You will have to work hard for the privilege of keeping company with Prince Pandarus. Only once you meet, or exceed, the high standards set by your fellow Companions will you have the opportunity to prove your worth. Until then, I suggest you get to work.’ Hali turned her burning face to the floor. Before she could respond, Fedora spoke again. ‘There is no shortage of prostitutes in the kingdom, and there are many women who would not charge for the opportunity.’

Aldara could see Hali’s embarrassment growing. ‘Surely you can forgive Hali for her confusion. She was bought by a prince who showed little interest in her education when he met her at a bread stall.’ The words just came out. It was not uncommon for her mouth to get ahead of her good sense.

Fedora’s expression did not change. ‘You have much to learn, child. Let us hope you are a fast learner, or you will spend the rest of your youth cleaning the prince’s fireplace and fetching water for the women in his bed.’

Aldara failed to see the downside in that threat but dared not say as much.

‘You will both attend church in the mornings,’ Fedora said, moving the conversation along. ‘You will be discreet at all times and stay within your designated area.’

‘Is that compulsory?’ Aldara asked.