Into the Goodnight Ch. 04


The following day he returned to his work, but stated they had enough money for the time for her to rest and do as she pleased so long as she had a meal ready for him in the evening. She thoroughly cleaned their tiny home, and satisfied with its state, made off for the communal room at the butcher's, knowing the noon-day meal should be just about ready to serve.

Over the course of the following days, she maintained order in her happy little home and spent her free time helping as she could at the widows' communal meals. Aside from getting to know many of the old women there, she learned a great deal about cooking from Marina the young widow, and also spent time with her little son, chasing after him and finding silly ways to amuse the toddler as his momma worked.

As there was still the issue of the unused spinning wheel, Aurelia suggested they give it to Hilma with the understanding that she would pay them a quarter of the money she earned from it, leaving her with the remainder to buy more raw wool and live off. Maks was in agreement, seemingly understanding that Aurelia was not capable of turning a profit with the contraption. With the last of their money, she bought a little wool and gave it to Hilma with the wheel. The old woman was overcome with gratefulness and very happily agreed to the terms.

"Loyalty and devotion lead to bravery. Bravery leads to the spirit of self-sacrifice. The spirit of self-sacrifice creates trust in the power of love."

-Morihei Ueshiba

Near the end of the week, Maks confessed over dinner that she would need to bring in some form of income, and stated he had managed to get her a position in the kitchens at the castle. Aurelia's face paled.

"I can't work there," she denied, vehemently shaking her head.

Maks expression turned serious. "You can and you will."

Still shaking her head, she stood, backing away in refusal. "How can you expect me to do that? To work in the home of the very man I so despised? He was a former suitor, Maks, how can you forget that? And that my rejection of him was the cause for my downfall?" Aurelia wasn't quite certain what was stronger, the trepidation of working in the castle or pain that her husband—who she had begun to feel a special affinity for—cared so little for her feelings that he would subject her to it.

"I forget nothing," he countered. "But this is about our livelihood. We need more income and you are trained for nothing to earn it."

Aurelia frowned and looked away, feeling the cold burden settle around her. "Is there no way you can find a different means of work? Is building a wall all you are capable of?"

"I am obliged to finish the job to my country. After, we shall see. But for now, we must do what we can to survive. The king is nothing more than your sovereign and employer. In all our time together, if you have learned anything, it should be that sacrificing what we want is sometimes necessary. And if you wish to show loyalty to me and not to your old, spoiled and vain ways, then you will fulfill this obligation."

And there it was, the realization that this was nothing more than the last test of her pride. That just like all those times she complied and submitted herself to his desires, she would have to do so now, except this time it was not for their corporeal pleasure, but their very subsistence.

"Very well," she relented, her voice shaking as her eyes filled with tears.

It was quiet the following morning, as Maks led her through fog-filled streets, slowly winding through the houses of their neighborhood and finally up the long, twisting road that ascended the hill to the castle. A nervous jitter filled her chest, and as she slowly lifted her eyes to peer up at the mammoth rock castle a dread and despair settled on her. She pulled the lovely green kerchief, which she had tied over her head to cover her hair, lower, shielding her eyes.

The castle, it seemed, was just coming to life, waking with the gray light of the morning. Fires were being lit, doors and gates were being opened, soldiers filling in their day posts, servants scurrying around busy with their work.

Maks stopped just short of the main doors, indicating they were to meet the head housekeeper who would give Aurelia her orders. They stood looking at each other, neither speaking, and it seemed just as he was about to, someone approached.

"Good morning," the elder woman greeted.

"Good morning, madam. This is my wife, as I informed you yesterday," Maks gave in a way of introduction.

"How do you do?" Aurelia asked, stepping forward and presenting herself with a small curtsy her servants had always given her.

"Good morning, dear. I am Miriam, the housekeeper here. If you will follow me, I will show you your post and introduce you to Gladwell, our head cook."

Aurelia's eyes flickered to her husband's, to which he gave a single nod of approval. She in turn nodded in agreement to the housekeeper, and together, they set off for the castle. But before they were not ten feet away, he called out to her, causing them to pause.

"Bud, I want you to take this," he said, drawing her eyes down to his hands. He simply held one of their clay canisters. She looked back up at him puzzled. "For the scraps. You will be permitted to save what leftover food from the table there is."

Aurelia's cheeks instantly blazed crimson in the shame of what he was asking her to do. She had fallen so far, and for a happy week or two, she had managed to almost forget it, to remove herself from the reality of how poor she had become. But now this: forced to take scraps from her rejected betrothal's table! Like a dog.

She buckled, her head shaking vehemently. "No, Maks!" she hissed, backing away.

But he grabbed her firmly by the shoulders. "You can, bud. Do it for me. For us," he coaxed, peering down at her, drawing her in.

She could feel everything crumbling, all shattered and broken and nothing left. But he was all she had, all that was left, the only solidity in her life, and so, even if it pained her, she could do this. She only nodded, taking the jar from him and slipping it into a pocket. Miriam had stood quietly by, saying nothing, not even appearing that she was put out for waiting. Slowly, sadly, Aurelia followed her to the castle. As her mind attempted to adjust to this latest, perhaps greatest injustice done to her dignity, she took in her surroundings.

There was nothing singular about the layout of this keep, Aurelia noted. At the front entrance, massive double doors with long steps on either side led up to the threshold opened into a great hall. Miriam led her off to the right, past the grand table long enough for more than twenty, and between the folds of a red velvet drape shielding the castle from the kitchens.

The noise was instantaneous the moment Aurelia stepped through. Though they were only in a long hallway that ran the length of the kitchens, clamor and chatter escaped the rooms off to either side. Miriam led her along, explaining the function of each room: the storage for the wine, storage for the meat, the grain and produce storage, the ovens for the baking, the spits for roasting, the wash rooms for the dirty dishes and at last where all the plateware and serving dishes were stored.

Aurelia took it all in with a peculiar sort of wonder, never having been in that part of even her own castle. The grand scale of it all, the bustling of all the servants to and fro; it was a sort of city all unto itself.

"And this is the main kitchen area, where you most likely will find Gladwell. Ah, there she is," Miriam stated, pointing out the head cook.

Aurelia's brow shot up. Not what she was expecting. The head cook looked as if she never ate herself. She was tall, as tall as a man, with wiry gray hair that looked as if it might have been blonde in her youth and done up in a tight bun, a doily of a kerchief covering it. But it was her weight, or lack thereof that made her so striking. For all her height, she couldn't have weighed more than a young girl, as if she was proportioned to be so much shorter and yet had been stretched out far too thin. Even her face looked stretched, long and thin and hollow as it was.

"I know what you are thinking, but believe me, not only is she a superb cook, but she runs these kitchens almost as well as our king runs his army. The height of efficiency and effectiveness."

With the reminder of whose castle she was now a lowly servant in, Aurelia's stomach did that aggravating looping thing again. But she pushed it down. It mattered not where she worked, only that it was honorable and she hardworking. And after all, she consoled herself, servants of her stature never met the royals they quietly served. Her chin lifted a little higher. Sensing Miriam's eyes on her, she turned her head, raising her brow expectantly.

"Let me introduce you," the housekeeper said, a suppressed smile lighting her eyes.

"Gladwell, this is your new scullery maid, Aurelia," Miriam began as she approached, drawing the stern looking woman's attention from the young girl presenting a beautifully decorated puff pastry. With a flick of her skeletal wrist, the tall woman dismissed the girl who looked as if she'd just been given a death sentence reprieve and wasted no time in scurrying away.

For a moment, Aurelia was frozen in cold gray eyes, the sort that might have once been blue, but with age seemed to fade to mist. And it struck her that perhaps this woman was far older than her tall, lanky appearance suggested. Those cold eyes narrowed.

"What would you serve with a hog loin? A reduction made from apple or from peach?" the terse woman quizzed her without any formalities.

Aurelia was stumped. She wasn't a cook, had little knack for it. But she had been a princess, accustomed to the finest food in the land. She remembered what her own cook had made. Folding her hands before her, she replied serenely, "It would depend upon the season, madam. For the spring or early summer, peach. For the autumn and winter, apple. Perhaps with cranberry," she added as an afterthought, recalling one of her favorite midwinter meals.

The tall woman's eyebrow shot up, clearly not anticipating such an answer. "And the best way to prepare cabbage leaf," she fired at her.

Again, Aurelia knew nothing, except what her husband had taught her. "Simplicity, I think. Quickly fried in the drippings of duck with only a pinch of salt."

And again, the cook's face could not contain the shock and interest in this new comer. "In whose kitchen have you served?"

The corner of Aurelia's lips quirked up. "Only in the finest man's, humble though it was, but it was a very short stint."

Gladwell's eyes flashed at her. "Just because you will not be living here at the keep, I still expect you to be punctual. We start every morning at five in order to be ready for his majesty's first meal. Thankfully for you, he is not entertaining any guests and the demands on the kitchen are considerably less."

Apparently, Aurelia had passed whatever test she'd just been subjected to, as Gladwell began speaking rapidly, firing off the hierarchy of the kitchen, who Aurelia would report to and her duties as the lowest-ranked servant in the whole of the castle: scrubbing the floors and the pots and pans.

As Aurelia stood in front of the large wash basin, waiting for the water to boil over the fire so she could start her first round of washing, she couldn't help but wish she had a window to peer out of to occupy her mind during the tedious tasks to come. It seemed as soon as Aurelia laid down the last pot, scrubbed to shining, two maids came bringing in armfuls of more dishes. When the morning dishes were all cleaned and put away, one of the other scullery maids came to show her how to clean the floors.

Starting in a distant hallway, they worked in silence until the short, pretty redhead could no longer keep quiet. She asked about Aurelia, her origin, why she did not live in the castle, and how her husband came to secure such a position for her. When she commented on Aurelia's hair, what a lovely color it was, she studied her a moment before stating the cut did nothing for its beauty. Aurelia only managed to reply something to the effect that she hoped it would grow back quickly, disinclined to speak about it further.

The young woman, Blythe she said her name was, then shared her own happy experiences at the castle, stating that though Gladwell was as stern as rock, she was actually a very good leader in the kitchen and that she secretly hoped to become a junior kitchen maid and cook alongside her. And she did no end of praising their king, gushing about how lucky Aurelia was to work in his castle.

"He's the best there is. Ever so kind but strong, too. His army's the best of many nations. No one can stop him." But Aurelia didn't wish to hear an iota about him, and so made no response to her chatter. After the noon hour, Aurelia found herself once more scrubbing away at the pots, wondering how if only the king were in residence, there was so many dishes to clean. When again two maids brought in the cleared plates from the king's table, and she found herself alone, she eyed the scraps warily, a pain growing in her stomach that effectively ended her appetite. With something akin to nausea, she found herself removing the little storage jar from where she had tucked it in a corner, removed the lid with a nervous clatter, and studied the dishes carefully, looking for both the most appetizing and least-touched food until the jar was filled and she could quickly secure the lid and stash it in the corner once more.

She scraped the rest of the food—now meant for the hogs and dogs!—into a bucket and scrubbed the dishes and plates with new vigor. The little jar tucked away seemed to draw her eyes frequently, taunting her destitute state and the grotesque need that made her so dependent upon the scraps of a rejected suitor. By the end of the day, night was creeping in, the sky dimly lit by an unseen, sinking sun.

Head low, gait labored, Aurelia left the castle grounds, passing through the lower bailey gate just as the guards began lowering it for the evening. "Need an escort home, miss?" one of them called out.

Caught off guard, she only stuttered that it was a short walk and she would be fine by herself. "Sure about that?" came a dark, silky response from the shadow of the few trees that lined the path up to the castle.

Aurelia started, a hand springing up to her racing heart. "Maks! Quit scaring me!" she hissed, her fatigue making her cranky. "You'll cause my heart to stop one of these days."

But he only gave her a smirking turn of his lips. "Then I just might have to revive you," he offered, wrapping an arm around her middle and drawing her close. But Aurelia felt no interest. Her head turned away.

"Here," she grumbled, holding the little jar to him. "Your supper." She slipped from his arm and continued the journey home.

"Hold up there, bud," he said warmly, taking her by the hand and tugging just enough to slow her speedy escape. She tried to wrangle her hand free, but when it became evident Maks was intent on keeping hold of her, she sighed in submission and slowed to walk at his leisurely pace.

"How did you find the castle?"

She shrugged, hoping indifference was a little better than disdain. He squeezed her hand in encouragement. "Everyone was pleasant enough, I suppose."

"And the work wasn't too hard?" She shook her head.

"Only boring. There are no windows in that room. And I'm stuck in there most of the day, scrubbing away. At least I'm given a reprieve and am allowed to wonder out in the castle to scrub the floors," she conceded morosely.

"Windows, especially on the ground floor, would only weaken the security of the castle," he explained. She shrugged, indifferent to security when it made daily living dull. Tears welled in her eyes at the thought of spending the rest of her life in that dark, closed in space. Caged.

As if sensing her distress in the dark, Maks let go of her hand to wrap his arm back around her waist, guiding her through the dark as they walked home. And that was how it went for the following two weeks, early every morning Maks escorted her to the castle, Aurelia worked until her limbs shook with fatigue and endured endless praise of that obnoxious King Goodnight, collected the scraps from his table and walked home with her husband.

Despite her annoyance at always hearing of the greatness of Goodnight, she had enough anecdotal evidence from the other servants to suspect that perhaps—just maybe—her hatred of him had been misplaced. It admitted, though begrudgingly, it had been born of something that had nothing to do with the quality of man and king and all to do with her own insecurities and resentments.

But the acknowledgment that the king wasn't actually a bad man didn't make her feel any better; it made her feel worse. She had been such a conceited brat that she had failed to see the good in someone and had ultimately caused harm to only herself. But it was a bittersweet truth, for if she'd never angered her father through her ridiculous behavior, she would never have belonged to Maks, a man she was beginning to believe was the best of them all, no matter his station in life.

But still, the idea that she had misjudged Goodnight and scorned a life that might have been only grew in weight as it niggled her brain. Finally, she couldn't keep her thoughts to herself. One evening as she was sharing with Maks about her time in the kitchens, she told him of Blythe, the non-stop talking maid who had very kindly taken her under her wing.

"She sounds like she is very good at her work."

Aurelia nodded. "And very loyal," she added dramatically, if only to disguise her shifting attitude toward the king.

Maks' brow raised. "How so?"

She contemplated taking the opening he presented, to share—no matter her chagrin—her thoughts. "She is very fond of detailing the merits of the king to me."

"Ah, and that is very irritating to you, no doubt, as his greatest critic. You've shared your opinions with her?" he questioned with a hint of sardonic tone.

"Not as such, no." She studied him a moment before braving her confession. "It seems to me, given all I have heard—though doubtless it could be exaggerated innocently enough by citizens who are apt to have pride in their monarchy no matter the greatness of his flaws—that, just perhaps mind you, Goodnight is not as odious as I once believed," she rambled, slowly confessing the last. "That my disdain for him was due more to my own jealousy than anything he did directly."

Maks' eyes pierced her, studying her with such intensity she had a fleeting thought she'd said something wrong, but then he blinked, and it was gone. He smiled lightly and nodded. "Hopefully with time, you will see just how worthy a man he is of your loyalty," he predicted quietly.

"Perhaps," she admitted. "But," she began slowly, watching her thumb nail trail the groove of the woodgrain of the table, "I truly do not think I can work in that castle the rest of my life. And not because of Goodnight," she rushed to explain, "just doesn't make me happy. In fact, it is about all I can do to not be miserable. I am trying, I truly am, but I need something else. I am willing to do it to help our income, but if ever there is an opportunity in the future for me to do something else—what, I do not know, so please don't ask—then I would like for us to pursue it. I just...need a little hope that it is not the fate of the rest of my life," she pleaded.

Maks appeared thoughtful before slowly shaking his head. "I understand. In fact, I am to leave tomorrow."

She sat up taller, her face concerned. "You're leaving? Why? For how long?"

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