The sounds of the market filled Nitya’s every pore as she watched her sister, Mirma, speak to an elderly customer. To her left, their father was making a sale of an old mirror. Nitya sighed as she returned to the mundane task of polishing a metal pot. Each day felt the same. Was this life, a merchant’s life, all there was? At eighteen, being a full-grown woman, she could marry of course. But the idea of being someone’s wife also didn’t feel…exciting.
Reflected in the polished bronze, her face looked back at her—the face she wished were less round and childlike, the long hair and bangs that surrounded it, the slightly slanted eyes that met her gaze with disappointment. Glancing up at her beautifully tanned sister and her wide eyes, Nitya felt a pang of jealousy. It wasn’t exactly the first time. It made sense why, at twenty, her sister was already engaged. The only thing special about Nitya were those eyes, with their flecks of green, but men rarely focused on a woman’s eyes.
Juni ducked into the stall and wrapped her arms around Nitya as she set the vase aside, laughing at her friend’s excitement. “I thought you were busy today.”
“I was, but I have the best of news. My aunt has secured a place for me in the palace.” Juni’s brown eyes danced with excitement. “In the kitchen.”
The palace! There was a swell of delight in Nitya’s chest—she couldn’t believe her ears. They had only been to the palace one time, to celebrate Mama Mab’s birthday. She’d only gotten to see the kitchen itself, but if she was working there, her friend would get to see so much more.
“One of the women is due to give birth, and they needed the extra help.” Juni squealed with excitement. She could be so carefree that sometimes it was hard to remember that Juni was a whole year older than her.
Nitya took her friend’s hands and faced her. “You have to tell me all about it!”
“That’s the thing,” Juni replied, her smile practically cutting her face in half. “They need a second worker, and I volunteered you!”
Nitya stared at her friend in awe. As a sense of adventure washed over her, Nitya jumped to her feet. Juni was still speaking, but Nitya was already rushing to her father’s side.
Her father’s leathery face turned to her. “What is it, Nitya?” His kind eyes were alarmed. “Has something happened?”
“Juni’s aunt needs help in the kitchens of the palace,” Nitya said as she gripped his arm. “Please say I can help Auntie.”
Her father blinked in surprise. “The palace?” He tilted his head, a sure sign that he did not think it was a good idea.
“In the kitchens!” she repeated. “And just for a few weeks to help out a woman who is having a child.” She opened her eyes wide to try to appear as innocent as possible. “Please, Papa. I can bring home money for the family.”
“Nitya…” She could see in his expression that her father was working up the courage to say no.
She rarely used the one weapon in her arsenal that always worked, but she might never have this opportunity again. “I’d like to see where my mother was born.”
A flicker of surprise and then sadness passed over his face. Guilt washed over her, but she stayed strong against its pull.
“How long?” her father asked.
“Just a month,” Juni piped up.
“A whole month?”
Nitya shot Juni a glare.
“We have a two-day-a-week shift for a month,” Juni clarified.
“Please, Papa,” Nitya begged. “Let me serve our Liege.”
Her father frowned, but she could see she’d worn him down. “Very well. You can help Auntie, but you must do all of your regular chores too.”
“I will!” Nitya promised before taking Juni’s hands and jumping up and down for joy, “I thank you, Papa!” Giggling, they went into Nitya’s home at the back of their shop and upstairs to her room to pick out her outfits and get ready for the work in the palace. This time next week she’d be in the palace! What memories would she make during her month? What people who she meet and befriend? All the possibilities of life altering events that could occur threatened to overwhelm her. She was giddy all day even when she returned to the odious cleaning of the metal pot.
Yawning at the early hour, Nitya hurried to the side entrance of the palace, where Juni was waiting. The sandy walls of the palace rose above her, but they no longer felt so imposing. Now they were full of adventure. When she turned the corner at the side entrance, her friend wore a dark maroon dress with a simple veil. By contrast, Nitya’s turquoise dress was far brighter. They had agreed to both wear blue!
Her friend put a hand up, no doubt in response to the look Nitya was giving her. “I spilled my breakfast on it this morning. I didn’t have a choice.” Juni took her hand. “Come on, we’re almost late.”
It was a just a dress, and there was no reason to match, but the idea of blending with someone else had somehow made Nitya feel safer. Over the few days since Juni’s announcement, Nitya had considered that look on her father’s face and the fact that Liege Aleron Corvinus was feared by his enemies and allies for good reason.
Juni’s aunt, Mabel, was waiting with a group of women who were flirting with a guard just outside the palace walls. Mabel shooed them away, and the women quickly hurried off to their duties.
“Best not be late on your first day, girls,” Mabel said before turning to the guard. “These are the two kitchen workers filling in for Mika.”
The guard nodded and opened the door. “Take care, Mama Mab.” Nitya smiled at the nickname—there was a reason Juni’s aunt was so well liked.
“Don’t think I forgot.” She laughed as she reached into her apron and produced a wrapped treat. The guard took the muffin eagerly.
“Thank you, Mama Mab!” He wasted no time in taking a hearty bite as they walked through.
“Keep up, girls,” she said, her tone stern but not scolding.
The grounds were simple, mostly consisting of the stones artfully arranged. Nitya was disappointed. She’s expected lush trees or vegetation that was rumored in the palace. As they reached the side door, Mabel led them towards the servants’ rooms. When they reached a confined room that slept four, Juni’s aunt waved at the two stacked beds on the right.
“That will be yours for today and tomorrow,” she told them.
Juni dropped her sack on the bottom bunk as Nitya swung hers up to the top. Mabel left the threshold without a word and they had to rush to catch up as she led them down a long corridor. Nitya and Juni giggled as they hurriedly took in the opulence of the palace’s interior. Never had she seen so much color and art in one place!
Still reeling they walked past an inner open courtyard that had scattered trees and flowering plants. Never before had she seen so much green in one place other than the glass growing houses. Zendar’s sandy world was all she knew. All of the plants were splashed in color by domed colored glass and Nitya fingers reach out and brushed against the nearest plant.
“I vouched for you girls, so be on your best behavior,” Mama Mab told them, her voice all business as Nitya snatched her hand back. “We prepare breakfast, lunch, and dinner for the higher-ranking guards and those stationed within the palace. You will be working there.”
“Do we get to serve the food?” Juni asked, her eyes wide with wonder. Nitya elbowed her. What was Juni even thinking?
“You know that is left to honored servants,” Mabel replied with a roll of her eyes.
Juni nudged her back and looked up with a mischievous grin. Nitya followed her gaze to a set of guards. One was more nicely dressed than the others, his clothing dyed red instead of the standard pale colors, and was very handsome. He had short black hair and a maturely square jaw and stood at least a head taller than her. Nitya couldn’t look away. From the tone of his voice, it was clear he was issuing orders to the other two.
“Nitya?” Juni’s voice cut through her focus. She blinked and then realized that she’d been so busy gawking at him that she’d stopped walking.
“Yes?” Nitya said, hurrying to catch up as her face burned. There was no way she was taking a second look after she’d just ogled the poor man like a love-struck moron.
“Uh-huh,” Juni said by way of response.
Mama Mab was not so gracious. “Best keep your eyes in your head girl. The soldiers here are mostly a bunch of scoundrels.” She harrumphed at that. “And after two days of work here, I doubt you’ll even have the energy.”