It is no bad thing, Guenneth believes, that she is now regarded as too dowdy and dull for most men of high standing or wealth to acknowledge.
In her younger days, she was sometimes pursued by the wealthy sons of those who visited or worked with her employers, but she found herself becoming more and more invisible to them as she aged. This suited her down to the ground.
In all of her years, only one man ever truly claimed her heart, and while she occasionally enjoys a flirtation or brief romance with men whose social standing is akin to hers, she has always known that a dalliance between a peroi – a member of the manual classes, bound to serve or die – and a scion of nobility will lead to nothing but grief, with the peroi bearing all of the consequences for it.
If only Josliehn had had the good sense to understand that.
Guenneth glances at her now – they are seated across from one another in the vast public aircraft that will carry them away from the patrician districts of Orsthai, back to their run-down but dearly loved home of Plaithses. She has arranged for Josliehn to be absent from the Pallias home tomorrow, while the wedding is taking place, and as she herself is not scheduled to work either, she will be able to keep a close eye on her.
Josliehn’s normally warm sallow skin is ashen, her hair limp, her eyes repeatedly filling with tears that she doesn’t seem to have the strength to wipe away. Guenneth sympathises with the girl, yet she can’t help being irked by her foolishness. How could she ever have believed that the son of Orsthai’s most high-ranking noble family would make her his bride, whatever he might have said to her in the throes of passion?
Orvec Pallias is the first-born child of Eitrem, Orsthai’s wealthiest merchant, and Albalia, high priestess of the Orsthis: one of the two religious sects that dominate the continent of Aarai, as well as boasting sizeable overseas empires.
The rival sect, the Meithsis, largely consider themselves to be the older, more traditional and therefore more valid faith, while the Orsthis, for their part, regard the Meithsis as antiquated and rigid. The centuries-long history of the two sects has been marked by violent skirmishes and outright warfare, but they now tend to settle their differences through a bloodless war of wealth, of academic prowess, of technological advancement.
Guenneth is considered, as a matter of official record, to be an Orsthic; she passed through the necessary rites upon her birth. All peroi are required to join the faith professed by their families’ employers, but as is common among inhabitants of Plaithses, she has little patience for the elaborate doctrines of either sect, and only attends ceremonies and gatherings when she must. As a servant of the Orsthis’ high priestess, she is required to accompany her in her duties at times.
The two women were born in the same year, but their lives and prospects could not have been more different. When Guenneth first began to work for Albalia’s family, she knew the future high priestess as outwardly graceful and soft-spoken, yet possessed of a burning desire to return her family’s legacy to the great respect in which it had once been held. In those days, their fortune had largely been squandered by successive generations of poor management – Guenneth had heard all the stories from her own mother before entering Albalia’s service as a maid.
Eitrem, as heir to a large commercial fortune, was chosen as Albalia’s husband in order to secure her long-term leadership of the Orsthis religion. Orvec’s arrival was perfectly timed, with all of the pertinent stellar alignments carefully checked in advance, as those of upper-class births always are. From an early age, he was shown all that he stands to inherit and brought on numerous tours of far-flung lands held by troops loyal to the Orsthic creed, where he was treated with deep deference by even the most hardened military commanders.
Over the years, Guenneth watched him acquire an ever-growing attitude of entitlement: explosive tantrums as a child; misbehaviour in school; open defiance of his tutors; frequent reports of bullied classmates and girls he had cast aside – such rumours were always swiftly investigated by his mother, lest an illegitimate heir should emerge one day to derail her carefully crafted plans for the family legacy.
Guenneth can still vividly recall one peroi girl who became pregnant after a brief fling with Orvec, and was removed from the house in disgrace as soon as Albalia got wind of it. She and the other servants on duty that day had no choice but to look on, helplessly, as the girl was dragged out of the kitchens by the high priestess’ guards.
She first suspected that Josliehn had become involved with Orvec a few moons ago, when she was cleaning some of the upper corridors and spotted her leaving his chambers with her face flushed and her hair in slight disarray,. She caught a brief glimpse of Orvec too, before the door closed behind him: bare-chested, a silk robe tied around his waist, a smirk on his face.
Obscured from view behind a pillar, she wasn’t seen by either of them, but she decided to confront Josliehn later that day, when they were alone in the kitchens. Josliehn furiously denied that anything untoward was happening; claimed she had simply gone into Orvec’s chambers to clean; offered up a series of such laughably obvious falsehoods, Guenneth was almost offended that she dared utter them.
Josliehn maintained her denials until that fateful day, a little over a moon ago, when Orvec’s engagement was formally announced during a grand gala hosted by Eitrem and Albalia.
Orvec’s betrothed is Beneth Gastaia. As soon as her name was declared, Guenneth knew why she had been selected.
The Gastaia clan hold considerable influence within the Orsthic priesthood, and Beneth’s parents have long been at loggerheads with the high priestess. Guenneth knows that Albalia has neutralised a significant threat to her authority by bringing Beneth into the family fold. The arrangement has no doubt assured the Gastaias that they will soon get to share in the Pallias wealth, so long as they agree to side with their high priestess on key issues from now on.
This is how upper-class marriages work. This is how they have always worked.
But Josliehn must have truly believed she was in with a chance to be Orvec’s wife. Later that night, when all the celebrations had passed and she and Josliehn were alone again, the girl finally broke down and confessed everything.
She cried that Orvec did love her; he had told her he did, many times. Oh, Guenneth might think little of him. The world might think little of him. Everyone else might regard him as selfish and entitled, but the Orvec she knew – he was different. When he was alone with her, he was kinder, quieter – more melancholy, at times – than his outer persona might suggest. He had told her that he sometimes envied her, for she would never have to step into a role she felt unprepared for. He had told her she inspired him. He had told her she was beautiful.
On and on it went, until Guenneth could take no more of it.
“Josliehn, listen to me. You must heed these words, and heed them well. Forget what he said. He doesn’t love you. He will never marry you. He never intended to marry you. He saw you only as a brief diversion from a life laid out for him before he was even born. You will never be a part of that life, and the sooner you understand that, the better.”
Cruel words? Perhaps. Harsh words? Without a doubt. But words that were, in Guenneth’s estimation, absolutely necessary.
“Now. I must ask this of you, Josliehn: is there any possibility that you are expecting?”
“No. I have gotten my bleed since we…” She closed her eyes, wiped away another tear. “Since I was last called to his chambers.”
“Well. That is one thing to be thankful for.”
“And I have been using barriers, just so you know. I taught myself how to make them. I inserted one every time. I’m not quite as stupid as you think me.”
Though annoyed by Josliehn’s tone, Guenneth clenched her jaw and decided not to comment upon it.
The craft is nearing Plaithses now. Gone are the ornate spires, the grand halls and fine architecture of Orsthai, replaced by cornfields and simple bungalows. Harvest season approaches – when they next travel to the station for the journey back to Orsthai, the morning after tomorrow, some of the local farming crews will already have started preparing their tools.
Guenneth glances at Josliehn. The girl has fallen asleep. She leans forward and gently shakes her arm. “Josliehn. Pick up your things, come on…”
Still half asleep, Josliehn gets to her feet with the gait of a woman seventy years her senior. Even as the craft softly lands and other passengers begin to make their way out to the station, she moves at a glacial pace, taking an age to shuffle out of her seat towards the door. Guenneth must fight the urge to grab the girl’s arm and hurry her along. She sincerely hopes this lovesick behaviour does not carry on much longer.
They walk in silence to Guenneth’s hut: her pride and joy. The whitewashed walls gleam in the late evening light. Her flowerbed is a riot of colour; she will water the blooms as soon as she has settled Josliehn down for the night.
Josliehn is listless: all the fight and the tears drained from her by the strain of preparing the house for the wedding of the man she still seems to love, despite everything. Guenneth finds it easy enough to steer her through the narrow doorway and towards the makeshift bed she has prepared. She encourages her to lie down, then hurries to the kitchen and back, fetching some bread and water to leave by her side.
As she turns to go, Josliehn catches her hand.
“You didn’t have to let me stay here tonight. So … thank you.”
“Josliehn … your mother saved me. And I swore to her that I would look after you as if you were my own. No thanks will ever be needed. Remember that.”
Josliehn nods – the ghost of a smile appears across her face, just for a moment – then she closes her eyes again. Guenneth makes sure to close the door as softly as possible behind her.
The poor child is only sixteen years old. Guenneth can well remember what it was to be that age: how a romance can light up your every waking moment and make you believe, somehow, that even as a downtrodden peroi girl, your life might be blessed with some measure of joy.
She will remove Josliehn from her cleaning duties and assign her to attend to Alilah from now on. Alilah is the daughter of Eitrem and Albalia: a good-natured soul in her own way – more agreeable than the rest of the household, certainly – yet sorely lacking in common sense, truth be told. The young heiress’ temperament is not unlike that of Josliehn, Guenneth supposes, though the social standings of the two girls are worlds apart.
Nevertheless, attending to Alilah is a relatively undemanding task, and it would be the perfect time for Josliehn to take up this role. Alilah’s previous maids, Innaia and Organa, are moving on. Most importantly, if she is assigned to work only in Alilah’s wing of the house, she will seldom have a reason to run into Orvec.
This is the first chapter of a project I’m working on at the moment, set in a fictional civilisation called Aarai, which has a working title of “The Ballroom Project” (a better one will fall into place, I hope). The chapter was previously posted in four parts – I’ll start sharing longer excerpts from now on. The word count is listed in the title so that people can make an informed decision as to whether or not they want to click through. Do let me know if you have any feedback or suggestions, as I’ve only recently begun to share my writing with other human beings again!