Amaria was late again.
She had been late with greater and greater frequency over the last few years, and today it had been at least half an hour since the appointed time, which had remained unchanged for almost thirty years. All the food for the household was brought up from the village, and twice a day an ill-tempered serving woman from the only inn would tramp her way up to the castle’s gate, where she would wait, apparently fuming, for the washerwoman to open it. The gate was immense, seeming to belong to a building far larger than the little castle, and hinted back to an era in which knights fired arrows from the tiny windows and battered down doors with their rams. There was something uniquely pathetic, therefore, about the ease with which the lone woman would push open its enormous wooden doors, as if they were nothing more than a pair of stiff window panes. The people of the village were idle and miserable, with little to occupy their time besides their constant, half-hearted battle to stave off illness and death. And despite this, they made Amaria late.
Beyond the gate, the only entrance to the castle these days was through a tiny opening that had been cut out of the huge main door. The watchman sat there for days at a time, and often in such a drunken stupor that he failed to recognise who or where he was. In her idle moments, Amaria wondered at how the contents of the castle, and specifically her mistress’s apartments deep within its interior, had somehow all managed to squeeze through the door’s tiny hole.
Today’s delivery woman was the sour-faced matron from the inn. The inn did not have a proper name; it was simply called ‘the inn’, and every evening the village’s population would tramp down to this dilapidated shack in order to silent drink themselves into oblivion. Looking at their serving woman, it did not require a lot of intelligence to imagine this atmosphere over which she presided. The ends of her mouth were turned down so far as to be almost comical; Amaria had frequently noted her resemblance to a particularly monstrous painting of a devil in the castle’s dingy chapel, but this was something she would never dare to voice. The woman’s dark hair was scraped underneath her cap so that it was barely visible, and her coarse gown had dragged in the mud on her way up the hill. The dirt reached up her skirt, growing progressively darker until her hem was virtually indistinguishable from the puddles beneath her feet. In this state she stood expectantly at the gate, clutching a sack in either hand. Neither she nor anyone else from the village would ever deign to take a step within the actual boundaries of the castle.
Amaria was deeply resentful of the constant delays. Her mistress, of an age when there is little else to amuse, was highly dependent on the reliability of her routine. She was past her ninetieth year, and spent all her time either in bed or seated in her chair by the window overlooking the courtyard. Whenever her meals failed to appear on time, she would screech that her carers were trying to starve her, however much they pleaded with her to calm down and reassured her of their undying loyalty. It was with a hardened expression, therefore, that Amaria approached the matron and took the sacks from her. Peering inside, in one she saw a small pile of muddy potatoes, each of which bore the warped, stunted look that all the village’s produce displayed, and in the other an assortment of twisted, undersized root vegetables, on top of which someone had placed two flat loaves of gritty bread. Putting the sacks down, Amaria bent to comb through the second with her hand. When she removed it again, her hand was covered with the familiar slimy black coating from the rotting carrots.
“No meat today, again?” Amaria demanded. Her mistress would not be happy.
Tight-lipped, the matron just shook her head slowly. “The tailor’s family came down with the ague,” she said stoutly. “All the spare meat was needed to make the broth. Your mistress cannot expect any such luxury in these times.”
Amaria felt the anger flare up inside her, and she gritted her teeth, but managed to keep from saying anything. She was well aware of what the people in the village thought of her mistress. But Amaria belonged to the small band of supporters that remained, convinced that their mistress’s life had been well-spent. As she was going about her work, she liked to think what a wonder it was that she had been selected, out of so many others, to retain such loyalty. Most other people had abandoned them as soon as her power fell. Her mistress no longer seemed to care what Amaria thought, but for her servants, belief still meant something.
“Your mistress’s son is in the village,” the woman sniffed, almost as an afterthought. “Her youngest, again.”
Amaria stiffened. Raymond was the only one of her mistress’s children that ever came to visit their mother. He was now in his fifties, balding, and always wore clothes made from the most expensive black cloth. Amaria always had a sense that he did not particularly enjoy visiting his mother, but felt he had to out of some obligation that was no longer felt by any of his brothers or sisters.
“Please tell him that the mistress will see him at his earliest convenience,” Amaria replied. She grabbed a sack in either hand and, with some difficulty, lugged them back towards the castle’s door. From there, it was a desolate walk down the narrow stone steps to the castle’s kitchens, where the single cook spent his days slumped on a broken chair.
“No meat again?” he demanded, peeling back the sack and inspecting the mouldy vegetables with a disgusted expression on his face.
“No,” she said crossly. “It seems a tailor’s broth is more important than the mistress’s health.”
The cook, though also a supporter of the mistress, did not share Amaria’s anger at her poor treatment. He simply shrugged and rolled his eyes, as though she were making a big fuss out of nothing. “There are still oats for the porridge,” he muttered, hauling the sack of potatoes into a corner of the room. Amaria saw him turn over a few of the potatoes; he liked to take the best for himself, hiding them in a hole in the wall before cooking them for his dinner. Though it made her insides boil with rage, Amaria usually pretended not to notice.