Idira had only had enough time to find her room all the way up on the top floor and let Blackie out of the chicken crate before two girls no more than twice her age, wearing dark blue dresses covered with crisp white aprons walked into her room each hefting two buckets of hot water. Two lads followed after them, grunting as they wrestled a copper tub through the narrow doorway.
Lanira, Idira's new minder, swept into the room, her arms laden with fluffy, fresh towels. She eyed the labours of the serving girls as they filled the tub, her narrow, pinched face filled with disapproval. Her black hair had been pulled back into a bun so severe not one hair dared lay out of place. Idira guessed her minder was no more than ten years older than Myra, but she seemed a lot older, like an old woman who had never once smiled in her whole life. Lanira set the towels aside and crossed the room, her sharp eyes already betraying her anger about something, although Idira had no idea what. She took hold of Idira's arm and yanked her over so she could pull Idira's tunic up over her head, her movements a little too rough for Idira's liking.
'Nothing here a good scrub and a fresh dress won't fix,' Lanira muttered to herself, as she tossed the tunic into the fireplace. Idira watched it succumb to the flames. That was her only piece of clothing. She wondered what she was supposed to wear now.
Lanira grabbed hold of Idira's chin and took a good long look at Idira's face. 'Those eyes! How horrible. Never seen the like of it before. I suppose there's a hint of blue somewhere in there but still, what a strange, quiet child. For the love of the Light, say something, you have just moved into the second best house in all of Westfall. What's wrong with you, were you dropped on your head when you were a baby?'
'Hello?' Idira ventured, not knowing what else to say.
Lanira's palm slammed against Idira's mouth, hard. Idira blinked back tears. It hurt a lot, she licked her lip and tasted blood.
'Think you're funny, do you?' Lanira scowled, her eyes narrow with dislike. 'Your father told me to keep you on a tight leash. I can see why now, too clever for your own good, you are.' She fell back onto her haunches and rubbed the back of her wrist across her forehead. 'Oh why must I always get the problem cases? Just once, the Light could bless me with a nice normal child to mind.'
Idira didn't say anything, but it appeared Lanira no longer minded her silence. She hustled her into the copper tub and scrubbed a lifetime's worth of grime from Idira's body and hair, complaining all the while, her ministrations rough and painful. When it was over, Idira sat before the fire, wrapped in a towel waiting for her combed out hair to dry while Lanira went to fetch something for Idira to wear. The serving girls came back and emptied the dirty bath water back into their buckets. They never looked at her or spoke to her. It was like she didn't even exist.
Alone once more, Idira got up and looked around her room. It was really nice. It had a big window right under the front gable. From its vantage she could see the whole square and all the way past the town to the surrounding countryside. In the distance, the glittering sparkle of the sea beckoned to her. She sighed, relieved. At least she could still see the sea.
The bed stood beside the window and had a high headboard and footboard. A half-dozen thick cushions stood piled against the headboard. She lay down on the bed, it was so soft, it made her think of floating on a cloud. Urgent voices echoed up the stairwell. Startled, she slipped off the bed and hurried back to her place on the padded bench, afraid of being scolded. No one came. She looked around some more.
At the opposite end of the room a pretty dresser with an oval mirror faced the window. Beside it, a huge wardrobe with double doors. A thick woollen rug covered the polished wooden floorboards. In between the bed and dresser a fire burned in the fireplace before a warming bench. And finally, tucked into the lower part of the gable, facing the footboard of the bed, a pair of padded chairs and a little table filled a nook. And that was it. The walls were painted pale blue, which offset the white door and marble fireplace. The bed cover was also blue as was the upholstery of the bench and chairs. Idira was glad, she liked blue, it reminded her of the sea and the sky. She was pretty sure she had been given the best room in the house. It was perfect. She could stay her for days with Blackie and just look out the window, watching people go about their lives.
Footsteps rushed up the stairs and Lanira pushed in, her face even tighter than before. She lugged in a large box tied with a bright yellow bow.
'Hurry, you must get dressed,' she said as she pulled the ribbon apart and lifted the box's lid away. 'Your father is already waiting and ready to go.'
Lanira pulled the dress from within its wrappings and shook it out. Apart from its soft pink colour, Idira didn't even have time to look at it before she was turned around and her hair tied into a loose bun. Lanira handed her a piece of clothing. Idira held it up, trying to make sense of it, wondering if it was a kind of cap. She put it on her head.
Lanira made a noise of pure frustration. 'They're underpants, you heathen,' she cried, miming how to put them on. 'How can you not know what these are? I swear you will be the nerve of me.'
Idira put them on. They felt funny, but she guessed she would just have to get used to them now she lived in a big, fancy house. Next came the shift, soft as a feather, then the dress. She looked down as Lanira laced up the back. It had a wide ribbon sash around the waist two shades darker than the dress. She touched the ribbon, savouring its silky smoothness. Lanira caught Idira's smile, and her face softened just a touch.
'So it took a dress to get through to you. Good, at least you are not a total monster, although what Mr VanCleef will think about those eyes of yours will be another matter. You better be on your best behaviour with him. He doesn't suffer fools.' She tugged and straightened Idira's dress until she was satisfied, then bent down and rummaged through the box's wrappings until she found what she was looking for. Out came a pair of soft pink leather slippers.
Idira slid her feet into them. Just like the underwear they felt a little strange, but she liked the feeling too, it made her feel special. Important.
Lanira held out her hand. 'Come, it's time.'
Idira took her minder's hand, stumbling to keep up as they raced down the three flights of stairs to her father and sister who waited in the entrance hall. Lanira tipped her head to Papa and handed Idira over to Myra.
Idira gaped at her sister's transformation. Myra wore a dark red gown pulled tight around the waist and cut low in the front, so the curve of her breasts stood out. Her hair had been swept up into a complicated style and decorated with little white flowers. A necklace made of silver and littered with red gems cascaded from her throat to her breasts. It moved as she breathed.
'You look like a princess, a magical princess,' Idira breathed. 'Just wait until Benny sees you.'
Myra smiled and nodded, her face so much softer and prettier now all the meanness had melted away. She lifted admiring eyes to Papa, who had exchanged his bloodstained tunic and breeches for gleaming black leather armour. His hair had been slicked back, and in his dark armour, wearing a pair of daggers on his hips, he looked quite forbidding and dangerous.
'It's because of Papa we have all this.'
Papa turned and glared at Myra. 'No, it's because of Mr VanCleef we have all this. I still have ta prove my worth ta him, an' I will. But if any o' us displeases him, all o' this will end. Who do ye think lived here afore us? Aye, that's right, nothin' is certain yet. So mind yerselves in there, and don' ye be trying ta be clever wit' him.'
Idira followed her father and sister out of the house, catching the curious looks cast in their direction as they walked to the big house. She stood up a little straighter, concentrating on not treading on the hem of her dress. Someone whistled at Myra. Papa stopped and glared around the square, searching for the offender, his fingers tightening around his daggers' hilts. The noise of the square died down. Silence fell.
A scuffle broke out at the edge of the blacksmith's, one of the smiths had got hold of a blonde haired lad, spindly, no more than fourteen. A blacksmith, three times the size of the boy, with fists as big as the rocks along the sea, punched the boy in the gut. He cried out, doubling over. The blacksmith looked back at Papa, waiting, ready to strike again. Papa stared at the lad, his eyes narrowed. The boy looked up, panting, his eyes wide and full of fear. Papa nodded and continued on his way.
The smith hit the boy once more, this time in the jaw, before the other let him go. The lad crumpled to the ground, his mouth opening and closing like a fish out of water. Idira glanced up at Myra. Her sister wasn't looking. She kept her eyes down, her hands clasped in front of her. Idira had never seen Myra so quiet. She wanted her real sister back, the one she knew and feared a little. Just to have one thing the same would be nice.
Papa approached the imposing door of the big house. It opened in total silence. Her father and sister entered. Idira hurried to catch up. A man wearing black leather armour, the same as Papa's, stood just inside the door. He nodded at Papa, respectful. As the door closed behind them, Idira glanced back at the lad still huddled on the dirt floor of the smithy, realising she knew almost nothing about Papa.
The man led them through the house and out into a courtyard. In the centre of it, two men sparred with swords, the sunlight glinting against their weapons. One of them, wearing black and gold leather armour, wielded two swords. His long black hair hung down to his shoulders, giving him a roguish look. He looked a little younger than Papa, but he was much more handsome with his chiselled features, athletic build, and refined elegance. He fought with precision and ease. He glanced up at their arrival and halted his work. His training partner bowed and left.
Placing his swords back into their scabbards, he moved towards them, his movements reminding Idira of a cat. He was nothing like Borda, Jim, Fence or Papa. VanCleef was like a prince from a fairy tale. She wondered why he would be here among such rough people when he looked like he belonged in a palace.
He nodded at Papa, and reached out to take Myra's hand. He lifted it to his lips and kissed it.
'Well, well, well, Jac,' he said, soft, his eyes eating up Myra, making Idira feel uncomfortable. Even Benny never looked at Myra like that. 'You weren't lying when you said your daughter would please me. She pleases me very well. Very well indeed. You may go. I will send for you tomorrow.'
Myra turned to look at Papa, fearful, but he was already walking away, his back to her. Idira didn't know what to do. She couldn't just leave her sister alone with that man who looked like he was going to do bad things to Myra, the kind of things Benny wouldn't approve of.
'Off you go, little one,' VanCleef murmured, without taking his eyes off Myra, 'your sister is in good hands. I promise I won't hurt her.'
'Myra?' Idira asked. Tears burned her eyes. Everything was getting scary. Couldn't they just go home now, with the chickens and Blackie and forget about all this? She didn't mind being hungry, after all.
Myra swallowed and looked at Idira. She forced a tremulous smile. 'Go on. Go wit' Papa.'
Idira backed into the house, obedient. From the courtyard, silence, then, the tearing of Myra's beautiful dress.