Title: Being Valter
Chapter: Attempted escape
Genre: Fantasy, Middle Grade
Fia kept her head down and hands in the pots. It was well after lunch and yet no one knew anything. People came and took food away. They brought plates back. Yet no one said a word. Usually the kitchen was full of laughter and noise; Fia liked it because she could be quiet and no one would notice her, but she heard everything. Today the silence was painful.
As the girls left, leaving just Cook and Fia at last before the evening staff took over, Fia was startled by Cook suddenly walking over, turning a bucket on it’s end and sitting down with a heavy sigh.
“What’s wrong, Cook?” Fia finally got out.
“I don’t like this, girl, I don’t like this one bit.”
“What don’t you like?” Fia ducked her head and heaved one of the largest pots onto the counter space she’d cleared off for it to dry.
“Whatever is afoot. There is something nasty going on.”
“But we haven’t seen anything. Maybe the men who came today were just some fancy men, come to talk to His Highness.” Fia’s hands worked of their own mind, washing the remaining pile of dishes by muscle memory.
“But High Highness never left the palace today!”
“But there are days when he doesn’t leave at all.
Cook looked Fia in the eyes. “Soldiers returned today.”
Fia gasped, a cast iron pot lid splashing into the soapy water. “Soldiers returned?” Her eyes grew large as eggs. “And the prince – “
“The prince never left the palace.”
Fia felt cold all over. It was tradition, dating back to Valter himself. Only under near death circumstances had the sitting monarch not gone to pay the military its thanks.
“Maybe something’s wrong.” Fia ducked her head and fished the lid back out of the water and finished cleaning it. “Maybe he’s sick?”
“Then why no magicians? Why no soups?” Cook shook her head, “No, if it were that we would have known. Doctors would have brought us recipes and oversaw the cooking themselves.”
As much as Fia didn’t want to admit it, Cook sounded right. “I – I’d better hurry up then.”
“Mark my words, Fia, something ain’t right.”
Fia tugged the shawl she’d wrapped around her head, making it just a bit more snug and hunched her shoulders. There was something not quite – right – about the guards posted at the servant’s gate. Fia didn’t speak to them, but she knew all of their faces and if hard pressed she could probably remember their names as well. These she did not recognize. Their uniforms were also brand new, but they were far too old to be new recruits.
The only thing Fia wanted was to remain unnoticed. That was how she survived; she drew as little attention to herself as possible and got along fine. It was when people noticed you that you had problems. There weren’t any others on their way out or in of the palace; just Fia. The guards watched her approach; no, they waited for her. When she would have walked past, one stepped in front of her.
“Here, you, girl,” he looped a thumb in his belt and glared down at her. “Where are you off to at a time like this?”
“It’s such an odd hour,” his companion leaning up against the yawning gateway remarked.
“I scrub pots, sirs. I leave when the pots are ready for dinner, and not before.” Her voice was quiet, hesitant even, but it didn’t fail her.
“Really?” The first said, his chin jutting out. “I think you’re skimping your duties, you are! You’re off to meet some no good boy instead of fluffing pillows like you’re supposed to!”
Fia’s jaw dropped a little and she looked up into the man’s face. His features, so dark and lined and brown, were foreign to her. Whoever he was, he was not from the parts near the city. Glancing at the other guard, Fia had the quickly swelling paniced feeling the hunting birds sometimes seemed to catch. If she had wings, she would be beating the air with them, her feathers fluffed out.
“Look at her! You caught her in a lie,” the second laughed and took a bite out of an apple.
“Why don’t you be a good little girl and go back to where you’re supposed to be.”
A little part of Fia rose up inside of her. She didn’t know who these men were, or why they were here, but they had no right to talk to her like this! She was Fia, she had Talent, she had hard bought education, and she would – continue to bow her head and get by being looked over.
“Yes sir,” she curtsied, “my mistake. Please forgive me.” She turned and scuttled away as quickly as was dignified. She couldn’t run, because they would remember a girl who ran, but walk away and she became yet one of the many trying to skirt duties. There were other ways out of the palace walls, if you were but crafty enough to find out.
Out of sight, Fia skirted some green houses until she could walk freely, hidden by hedges and orderly planted things. Working at the palace was not exactly prudent for one like her, but it was the last place one might suspect her to be, so in her mind it made perfect sense for her to be there. She had made conditions. She had to have multiple ways out of the palace; she was just going to exploit one now.
Standing under the inviting boughs of a tree, Fia looked around to see if anyone was watching. She even stretched and smelt some of the fragrant blossoms growing on the vines that clung to the stone wall. Satisfied she was alone and unobserved, Fia hiked her skirts up and hoisted herself up and onto a low hanging branch. Her arms shook with the effort; hauling pots and pans all day left her arms like rubber. Grunting, she pulled herself up and sat huffing and puffing, her legs dangling.
The wall wasn’t too tall, and this tree provided an excellent way over and down, thanks to its drooping branches. The only bad thing was that the leaves grew so thick and numerous this time of year that she couldn’t see anything of the street below her. Fia had to inch herself along the branch until she was at the spot that curved towards the ground, as if the tree were trying to touch its own toes.
Fia worked her legs through the branches and let herself drop. Her feet slapped the ground harder than she would have liked, and she grunted heavily – but she was out. Wiping sweat from her brow, Fia picked a twig from her hair and lifted her foot to take a step; she had lessons to get to after all.
“Where are you coming from?” A voice boomed behind her, deep and rough like scrubbing stones.
Wincing, she turned around to gaze at a young man, near her own age, whose size dwarfed that of the wall and all that around them. He had the sort of face that could only be crafted; the fine, strong lines of cheek and jaw, his jutting brow and – well – the rest of him. He was a statue come to life. And he had his hand clamped tightly on Fia’s shoulder.