Dark Arts by Michelle Diener

Cutting back past the kitchens was usually the best way for Horace to get to his chambers unnoticed, but not today.

“Your Grace. Your Grace.”

Horace glanced sideways and saw the speaker was a serving girl, her hand raised in meek apology, but raised nonetheless. She looked like she’d been waiting for him. Horace felt a sharp stab of annoyance that he couldn’t nip quickly back to his chambers without someone wanting something from him. Almost level with her, he didn’t alter his pace, striding purposefully forward. He had no intention of stopping. Perhaps if he pretended he hadn’t heard her, she would give up.

“Your Grace, please.”

Her plea was almost pathetic enough to cause him to check his step, but he hardened his heart despite her sweet appearance and kept on going. He took three more steps, then felt a weight on his robes. Still moving forward he twisted his head back to look and his eyes widened. The girl had reached out her hand and grabbed hold of his cloak to stop him. Fine-boned and slender, she’d been pulled off her feet by his fast pace and strength. He was literally dragging her across the floor, like a convicted thief being dragged by a horse.

She kept a tight hold, tucking in her elbows and allowing her body weight to act as a brake. She craned her head back to look at him and whispered: “Please, your Grace, I must speak with you. Please.”

Horace came to a sudden halt, looking into her wide, pleading eyes with shock. To accost the Grand Vizier in such a fashion – the girl must either be desperate or addled. He lent down and gently pried his robes from her fisted hands.

“You can speak with me now. Come.” He put out a hand and helped her to her feet. He could see she wasn’t sure whether he was agreeing to her request to punish her for what she had done, or to give her the audience she had gone to such lengths to obtain.

He didn’t enlighten her.

****

Horace placed his papers on his desk and walked around it to sit in the high-backed solid oak chair. He noticed the black velvet was wearing thin on the seat, testament to the hours he seemed to spend sitting on it. The serving girl trailed behind him, and came to a halt just inside the door.

Horace steepled his fingers and looked at her over them.

His secretary, Kevin, stood just behind the girl, clearly flummoxed by her presence.

“I’m sure you have work to do, Kevin,” Horace said pointedly. People hovering, doing nothing, instantly annoyed him. He turned his head away in unmistakable dismissal. The door closed on Kevin’s curious face.

The young woman walked into the middle of the room as if it hurt to take each step. She came to a stop before his large desk.

She stood before him, shaking slightly. Her clothes looked the worse for wear. He hadn’t noticed them earlier, but really, the situation had been so bizarre, he hadn’t noticed much about her except her nerve and the white-knuckled fists hanging on to his purple robes.

He recognized her now. She was one of the servants who worked in the royal
apartments. Her slim figure and long dark hair had caught his eye before. She always looked neat and well-turned out but now her over-tunic was torn and the dress beneath it looked as though it had been ripped, then carefully repaired. Really, the maidservant assigned to the royal apartments should take better care of her person, although from all accounts, her work had always been impeccable.

Horace realized the noon sun was shining though his office window. Time was wasting. “Now, what is it, girl?”

“My name is Lily, your Grace.” The small show of steel beneath the quivering exterior made Horace jerk his eyes from a particularly ragged tear on the neckline of her tunic to her face. She looked both petrified and determined. Horace noticed either a smudge of dirt or a small bruise under her one eye.

“Very well. Lily, what is it that you want?”

“Well, your Grace . . .” Now that it came to actually telling him what she wanted, she seemed to suffer an attack of nerves. She grabbed the front of her sack-like dress with one hand, and twisted the fabric in agitation. In the shaft of bright light that penetrated the slit of window, Horace thought her knuckles looked grazed. She couldn’t be involved in fist fights, surely?

“Get on with it, girl. I don’t have all day. I’m making precious time for you as it is.”

“It’s the prince, your lordship.” The words came out in a rush.

“Which one? The young prince?” For the first time, Horace felt a stir of worry. Jamie had been avoiding meals recently, Horace had hardly seen him.

“No! Not Prince Jamie.” The maid’s eyes darted about and she let go of her dress to wring her hands together. “Prince Torquil.”

Horace’s mood immediately soured. Torquil’s name had that effect on him. “What about him?”

“He . . . he has . . .” The girl’s voice lowered to a whisper.

Horace felt the agitation rise in his chest. He should have guessed straight away. Torquil, at it again with the servants. And this one would most definitely have caught his eye. She was fetching in a ragged, wide-eyed sort of way. “Bothering you, is he?”

She raised startled grey eyes to his. Opened her mouth to speak.

“Don’t worry, I’ll see to it that he doesn’t come near you again.” Horace wrote a note in the daily list of things to discuss with Torquil. Stay away from serving girl. “Was that all?”

She opened her mouth again, but no words came out.

“Good, it was easily fixed, then.” He fingered the papers on his desk.




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