The Queen shivered. The padded box of hot coals beneath her slippers didn’t seem to dispel the deep cold that had settled into her bones. She felt the heavy wetness of the bottom foot of her brocade skirt, soaked up from the wet straw strewn on the floor. The fur trim on her gown couldn’t warm the expanse of bosom that she was obliged to display for the sake of fashion.
It was always dark in the castle. Even in midsummer, torches had to be lit in windowless passages and rooms with only defensive slits for windows. Tonight, the very air seemed full of moisture, so that the torches and roaring fire in the great fireplace at one end of the hall seemed to glow through a veil.
One day the Queen would leave all this behind her. She would retire to the nunnery she visited now and then, by the coast in the south. There she would tend the garden and sew in the cloister and sing songs to God with the sisters: useful, joyful work in the light and the air. All that was needed was a wife for her son and an heir to follow him and she would be free.
Her ladies giggled nervously as a boom of thunder was followed by a daylight-bright flash of lightning through the high slit windows.
The Queen sighed and beckoned to a page. “Are the leaks being seen to?” she murmured.
The housekeeper tutted at the page’s message. Did the Queen think she was incapable? Honestly, when had the leaks ever not been dealt with? The moment the rain started, off went the scullery maid and the pot boy with an armful of buckets each. They’d be walking the corridors, checking for drips and emptying the full containers where they could all night if need be. And that meant the kitchen maids would have to do the washing up and the cooks wouldn’t have as much help as they needed – everyone would be short-tempered until the rain stopped. Everyone except the scullery maid and the pot boy. The housekeeper had seen the way the two of them grinned at each other when they fetched the buckets. You tended to forget they were only children.
A firm rap on the door announced a dripping guard.
“Sorry to disturb you,” he said.
The housekeeper flapped her hands to stop him entering her cosy little room. She worked hard to keep the rest of the castle’s damp out of here.
“What is it?” she said, stepping into the passage with him.
“This … person … knocked at the main door,” he said.
Behind him, lit by the yellow glow of a wall torch was a tall girl in a travelling cloak surrounded by a pool of water. The housekeeper had never seen a creature so wet: her hair was plastered to her head, her cloak was dark and heavy with water and the rain dripped down her pale face and off her nose and chin.
“I’m not sure what to do with her,” the guard said apologetically. “She says she’s a princess.”