To Be Unseen
The gown would never do.
It was too big with frills around the bottom and a mass of petticoats, not to mention cap sleeves.
But she couldn’t tell Hilga that. This was the current fashion and in any other situation, Menna would’ve loved to wear it. But frills and petticoats made sneaking very difficult, if not impossible.
“Hilga,” Menna called.
The plump woman rushed in still chewing on a muffin. Crumbs trailed down the front of her dress. Noticing these, Hilga shook the fabric but the bread pieces stubbornly held on.
Dear Hilga. Menna shook her head but didn’t comment.
“Yes, Mistress?” Hilga asked.
“It’s a wonderful dress…”
“I hear a but…”
“But Lady Addina about strangled me when I out dressed her last time. I’ve got to keep relations smooth, you know.”
Hilga scowled. “Shame. I picked this specifically to bother Lady Addina’s Dresser.”
Menna chuckled. She forgot sometimes that the politics between the servants were just as conniving as they were between the nobility. And Hilga had flare when she wanted to.
“Hang onto the dress. We’ll let them think they’ve out done us and then show them better later.”
Hilga shared a smile with her and took down the dress from where it hung on the wardrobe. “What shall it be, then, Mistress? Last year’s fashion? Something gaudy? Patterns maybe?”
Menna cringed. No patterns! “Let’s try sleek with the current violet color. It’ll keep them guessing.”
With a nod, Hilga disappeared out the door. While she waited, Menna fingered the letter on her dressing table. It shone slightly silvery with dark purple lettering.
You are invited to attend dinner at the Milens Manor…
It stated a date and time. Menna had already sent back the RSVP card by way of her runner, Teken. Flipping the card over, she fingered the edges of the card. Subtle bumps ran beneath her fingers. It was a style current with the nobility to add texture to their invitations. That’s why it was so clever to hide messages in the bumps.
Menna ran her finger top to bottom on the left side. Attend dinner. Then bottom to top on the right side. Spy on meeting in office.
It didn’t tell her exactly what she was looking for. Only to listen and report.
Hilga’s shuffle alerted her to the return of her Dresser. The plump woman carried a dress over her arm in the violet color she’d requested. Hilga held it up and shook it to make sure everything fell neatly.
“Will this do, Mistress?”
Menna loved it. It flared below the knees is a wispy sort of way down to the floor and left her arms free to move by slicing a neat line from the shoulder down. In other words, it didn’t really have sleeves, just fabric that hung in wisps to.
“Perfect,” Menna said.
Hilga assisted her into the dress and stepped back. “Fashion or no, you’ll be all the talk.”
“You’re too kind,” Menna shoed her, “now let me finish my preparations in peace.”
Hilga bowed as best she could, she wasn’t a terribly graceful woman, and left. The Dresser may not be graceful but she was efficient and efficient was what Menna needed. Plus, she never questioned why her Mistress came back from such occasions with dust covered dresses or dirty hands. It was better Hilga didn’t know and the servant was smart enough to realize it.
Menna sat at her table and applied her makeup. She always insisted on making her own finishing touches. That way, she had time to prepare for other things without being watched.
Pulling her hair into a neat braid and then curling the braid against the back of her head, she pinned it in place. Then she opened the top drawer and pulled out the false bottom. Beneath sat two small daggers. These she attached to her calves. Lastly, she pulled out a necklace in the shape of a heart. It appeared to be a locket but inside was a tiny vial with just enough liquid to make someone pass out.
It never hurt to be prepared when you spied on important people. Menna rose and called for her carriage. Time to listen in on Duke Milens. It didn’t surprise her that she was called to spy on him, he was, after all, in direct line for the throne. But it would be dangerous. Menna smiled. She liked dangerous.
Every manor in the city sported hidden passages. The trick was knowing how to access them. Menna made it her business to know every manor like it was her childhood playhouse.
Swirling her wine, she sniffed the bouquet and hummed in delicate appreciation.
“Lady Addina, what’re your thoughts on this vintage?”
She handed her glass to the petite woman beside her.
The men, including the Duke, had retired after dinner for a smoke. Menna didn’t have a lot of time to get to her spot in the wall of the office before she missed their conversation.
Lady Addine swirled the glass and sniffed, slowly bringing the wine closer to her nose. “Very floral,” she muttered.
“Really, I sense more cherry, you’re thoughts Lady Yarren?”
The glass passed again. “Mmm, cherry blossom, perhaps?”
The glass continued around the room until Menna reclaimed it. Then she waited.
Lady Addina yawned.
That’s right, you’re very tired.
A few others yawned and eyelids drooped.
Setting her wine on the table, she carefully wiped the rim before excusing herself. She doubted the Ladies would even remember she left as they all slumped in their seats. Such a small dose of the chemical, Mettadon, hidden in her locket would only leave them snoozing for a half hour and when they woke, few would truly realize they’d been sleeping. It muddled the mind. A larger dose would do much more but she’d never used it that way.
Menna made her way to the guest library where she found a large painting of a sunset. Swinging the painting open on its hidden hinges, she pulled up her dress indecently high and crawled into the square passageway in the wall, pulling the painting closed behind her.
It was a good thing she was small because most of the passages were built for children. A lot of the nobility used children as spies.
Crawling into place in a widened section of the tunnel, Menna pulled her knees close and slide back a piece of the wall, revealing a peep hole.
The room beyond contained a heavy desk and several overstuffed chairs. All of which were occupied with gentlemen. The air hung thick with tobacco smoke.
“…get that close, Your Grace, he refuses to attend any of our activities.”
“Then we act during the Princess’ birthday,” Duke Milens said. Menna recognized his throaty voice even though she couldn’t see the man. “It’s the only opportunity we’ll have. If we wait longer, he’ll marry her off and the throne will pass.”
My, my…this sounds bad for the King.
“It must look natural,” said Lord Sheruk. He was a bit of a surprise. Menna always found the man a bit out of touch. Perhaps it was an act.
“It will look like heart failure. Just stay away from the sorbet.” Menna didn’t recognize this last voice but her time was running out.
Gently unfolding her knees, she shifted so she could go back to the library. She touched the painting to open it…
The sound wasn’t from the office, but the library.
A dog? Since when?
She scooted backwards, unable to turn around until she reached the widened section again. Reaching it, Menna shifted around and heard a rip.
My dress. Menna wanted to growl but held her silence.
Crawling forward, she reached the opposite end of the tunnel and unlatched the painting in a guest room.
The painting was replaced and Menna was dusting herself off when the door burst open. A guard with a large black dog.
“Oh dear,” Menna said, “I’m afraid I’m…”
The guard released the dog.
She pulled a dagger and crouched. As the dog leapt, she slashed upward at the same time as she shoved the head away.
The dog dropped at her feet, dead from a cut throat.
“Spy!” The guard shouted.
Running feet sounded from the hall.
Menna was good with a knife, but not that good. She sighed in resignation. She’d never tried Mettadon on herself before.
Yanking her necklace free, she downed the chemical through a tiny hole at the base of the heart.
Instantly she went cold and her limbs gave out. The floor rushed to meet her but she didn’t feel anything when she landed.
Oh dear, I just killed myself.
“MY MISTRESS IS DEAD! OH, Get out! Get out now!”
Wailing, sharp, high pitched, ear splitting wailing.
“My condolences,” a male muttered and then there was the sound of steps but as they receded, the wailing overpowered them.
“OH, MISTRESS MENNA, MY…you can wake up now.”
Menna cracked one eye open and sure enough, her plump Dresser leaned over her with a sly smile splitting her lips. Wincing, Menna covered her eyes with a hand. Apparently one horrible side effect of Mettadon was a pounding headache.
“Drink this,” Hilga held a glass to her lips.
The liquid tasted like water with lemons but a subtle undertone of berry gave her a heads up.
“I’m sure your head’s killing you,” Hilga chuckled, not at all put off by Menna’s scowl.
She swallowed more of the painkiller before asking, “what’s the story? How’d I end up here?”
Hilga chuckled again. “They brought you in dead, Mistress. They said someone drugged all of the Ladies but over did it and killed you. They didn’t want word getting out that you were the druggist. That’d be horrible for their alliances, you know. The great house Rayden’s own daughter a spy! How would they retaliate without souring relations? No, it was much easier to say they’ve no idea who did it and claim you were the victim. The use of Mettadon saved you. They really think you killed yourself.”
“Maybe I should’ve,” Menna groaned, her head still pounding away.
“Now that won’t do,” Hilga scolded, “especially when your Mistress needs you.”
Menna removed her hand to look at Hilga. “How long have I been out?”
“The Princess’ birthday?”
“A disaster. The King’s dead and poor Cicyllia’s been kept to the castle. Milens has taken over. Rumor has it he’s going to dispose of the Princess quietly. Say something about grief overcoming her.”
Menna sat up and winced before slipping from the bed. “I’m a horrible spy. I heard them planning the King’s demise.”
Hilga didn’t even flinch at the outright mention of Menna’s side habits. I don’t give the woman enough credit.
“The Princess needs help.” Hilga said. She opened the drawer to the night stand and pulled out two new knives. “I’ve an outfit that’ll make it easier.”
The Dresser handed her the knives and shuffled from the room. Menna fingered the hilts before strapping the weapons to her calves. Should’ve trusted Hilga sooner.
Hilga returned with a black outfit over her arm. “It won’t win you a fashion contest, but it’ll make saving the Princess a lot easier. Plus, I don’t want to see another dress return in the state of the last one.” The woman held up a pair of pants and a boy’s button shirt.
Menna swallowed. Men’s clothes. But Hilga was right. If she didn’t have to worry about skirts, navigating the tunnels would be a lot easier.
Grabbing the outfit, Menna changed. Before she could leave, Hilga held up a necklace. Her locket.
“I refilled it.”
Menna hugged her. “Meet me at sunrise by the Burning with supplies.”
Mist filled the night. Menna couldn’t see more than a few feet ahead, which was both good and bad. She had to be extra careful of the guards at the bridge to the castle but at the same time, they couldn’t really see her either. So she stepped lightly, keeping the sound of her footfalls very soft.
Slipping by the guards, she half felt her way to the tower farthest on the left. It was mostly unused but it also had a hidden tunnel on ground level. Finding the hatch in the ground, she lifted it open and lowered herself inside, only lighting her torch once the hatch was closed again.
Now to find Cicyllia. Milens wasn’t a fool. He wouldn’t hold the Princess in the dungeons. Her rooms, then.
It took several hours of moving through tunnels, running down halls to new hidden passages, and avoiding people for Menna to finally reach the passage into the Princess’ rooms.
Lowering herself onto a desk, Menna winced. Dust covered her head to toe. Even her dark hair looked grayish.
Hello Princess. I swear I’m not a ghost.
She found Princess Cicyllia in the next room huddled in a chair by the window.
“Your Highness, you’re not safe here,” Menna said softly.
The Princess jerked, surprised, and then bolted from the chair. “Menna! You’re the best Lady-in-Waiting ever!”
Menna found herself in a tight hug. And then found herself comforting the Princess. “They killed him, Menna. And word was you were dead. I blamed myself for sending you. Oh, Menna, they killed my father!”
Guilt sat strong and acidic on Menna’s tongue. I should’ve been here.
Holding Cicyllia for a moment longer, she finally pushed her away and held her shoulders. “Your Highness, we need to get you out of here.”
The Princess nodded, her light hair falling over her shoulders. “Yes, yes. I’d hoped the rumors were wrong, so I packed like you told me to if something happened.”
Cicyllia pulled a bag from under the chair she’d been in and then threw a cloak around her shoulders.
All right then, I don’t give anyone the credit they deserve.
Menna led the princess to the passage and led the way inside. Cicyllia’s dress caught several times until Menna handed her a knife to cut off the hem. It made Menna even more thankful for a Dresser like Hilga. Not just efficient, but practical.
By the time they reached the outside, the gray of dawn was infiltrating the slight remains of the mist.
We’re going to be late. Hopefully Hilga would wait.
They reached the Burning, a forest which had burned several years before and left the husks of the trees standing forlorn and dead, about a hour after the sun rose.
Cicyllia collapsed as they reached the first trees. Few people came to the Burning, so they weren’t worried about being seen. But the forest sat on a hill above the city. Looking back, they could see the day starting by the activity in the streets.
“I’m a failed Princess,” Cicyllia muttered, staring at the city.
“And I’m a failed spy,” Menna replied, sitting down beside the Princess.
“Pah!” Both turned sharply to see Hilga shuffling toward them leading a pack horse. “You’re never a failure unless you give up or are dead. I see both of you are very much alive. Now, how about breakfast and then planning to remain unseen?”
Menna’s stomach rumbled. Breakfast first, then future planning.
Like the Princess read her thoughts, Cicyllia grabbed her hand and pulled her after Hilga, who led the way back into the Burning.
Blessings and have a wonderful weekend,
P.S. I love feedback, so if anyone has suggestions, questions, or comments on what they like or what doesn’t seem to work, please let me know. Just be gentle to my poor thin skinned feelings. Thanks.