Chapter 11, Installment 24

Rhysa handed her a bucket for rinse water, then turned to step into the tub. A sharp gasp and a clatter came from behind. She spun and saw Elise staring at her with shocked eyes and an open mouth, the dropped bucket rolling around her feet.

“What is it?”

“Turn around.” Elise’s voice was faint.

Rhysa gave her an odd look, and slowly turned her back to Elise.

“My god!” whispered Elise. Rhysa jumped at Elise’s light touch at the base of her neck.

“What?” Rhysa started to turn around.

“Hold still,” Elise said absently.

Rhysa did so, and felt Elise’s touch again at the base of her neck. Then again at the base of her spine. Then the point of her left shoulder and again on the right. It was as if Elise traced the lines of something. She felt Elise’s palm between her shoulder blades, as if Elise were providing support.

“I’ve never seen one so large before, except….”

Rhysa interrupted, a little irritated. “What are you talking about?”

Her tone seemed to snap Elise back to reality, and the response was brisk and matter of fact. “Your mark. The slave tattoo. It covers your entire back.”

Rhysa turned to face Elise and blinked. “I thought slave tattoos only appeared on arms or hands. I thought the Orb didn’t mark me because I passed out.”

Elise shook her head. “They can appear anywhere. Arms and hands are the most common, followed by legs and feet. I’ve seen cheeks, chests, stomachs, and even a buttock. But covering the entire back—I’ve never seen that in a slave’s tattoo before.”

Rhysa pondered this for a little while, then shook herself. “Whatever. I need to get clean, and you and Lady Kasteryn need to show me what to do when the prince gets here.” She stepped into the bath.

Sensing they were running out of time, Elise and Rhysa made quick work of Rhysa’s bath, then hurried to their separate rooms to finish getting ready. In her room, Rhysa pulled the tunic up a little and looked over her shoulder to view her reflection in the mirror. Sure enough. She saw the point of a sword and the bottom arc of a slave collar.

She’d just finished brushing her hair when Elise knocked on her door. Together they went up the stairs to meet with Lady Kasteryn and see what she wanted.

What Lady Kasteryn wanted, apparently, was for Rhysa to stand around looking pretty. And to serve drinks. There would be four people in this meeting aside from Rhysa and Elise: Lady Kasteryn, Lord Amonteus, Lord Hermestus, and the prince. Elise was to be the prince’s body servant for as long as he was in House Kasteryn.

The meeting would take place in the book-lined room Rhysa and Lady Kasteryn had breakfasted in the morning of Rhysa’s purchase. Rhysa saw a large sideboard had been added. On top were several decanters of various shapes and sizes. Lady Kasteryn had Elise run through the various beverages and their appropriate glasses with Rhysa. The glasses were stored inside the sideboard.

Rather than risk awkwardly rummaging around in the sideboard during the meeting, Rhysa put two or three glasses by the appropriate decanters. She fiddled with the decanters and glasses to create a nice display. Then she stood at one end of the sideboard and waited to see if anything else needed to be done.

A child of nine or ten burst through the door. “Lady Kasteryn,” he called breathlessly. He caught sight of the Lady and scurried over to where she sat giving Elise some last minute instructions. “Lady Kasteryn, the prince’s carriage was just seen turning onto the street.”

Lady Kasteryn stood. “Thank you, Samme. Go back to your mother, now. Tell her I said you performed your task well.”

Her semi-formal tone helped him pull himself together. He bowed with all the gravity a child that age could muster, and left the room quickly—but not running.

She turned to Elise. “Now, child, let’s go down and meet the prince. Jayse and Bryn should meet us in the entrance hall.” She turned her gaze on Rhysa. “You stay here. We won’t be long.” Rhysa nodded and the two others left.

Less than fifteen minutes later, Rhysa heard familiar voices in the corridor. She glanced around the room one last time, smoothed her tunic, and stood straight just as the door opened. In walked her three owners followed by the prince attended by Elise. When everyone was inside, Rhysa saw the door swing shut without anyone touching it. She also thought she saw a glow come from the doorframe.

The four stood in a curved line in the center of the room facing Rhysa. Elise stood behind and to the right of the Prince, looking as prim and competent as ever.

Lady Kasteryn beckoned. “Come here, child.”

Rhysa sighed with relief: Lady Kasteryn was using her normal voice, not the one she used to impress or intimidate. Rhysa paced her way towards Lady Kasteryn, looking at no one else as she had been instructed. She stopped five feet from Lady Kasteryn and curtsied, bowing her head slightly.

“Rhysa, I’d like you to meet the prince.”

Rhysa immediately turned towards the prince and curtsied deeply, holding it at the bottom, her head bent.

“Very pretty,” he murmured dryly. “Rise, child.”

Rhysa straightened and looked the prince in the eyes—also as instructed.

Lady Kasteryn went on. “Your Highness, this is Rhysa, whom you also bid on. Rhysa, this is Prince….”

“Call me Hallyk.” The prince cut Lady Kasteryn short with a small gesture. From the corner of her eye, Rhysa saw the three nobles give a start, but they quickly recovered their aplomb. In the prince’s eyes, however, she saw the gleam of amusement.

“Yes, your….” Rhysa stopped and swallowed. “Hallyk.”

The prince’s mouth twitched and he nodded his approval, never breaking eye contact. Although she didn’t feel trapped, Rhysa couldn’t look away. He seemed to look into her soul, measuring and weighing her. She would have said the tension in the room was thick enough to cut, but there was no nervousness. Rather, it was the relaxed anticipation one might feel while waiting for a friend to walk on stage for the first time.

He must have finally found what he was looking for; he took a deep breath and smiled warmly at her. She smiled back—hesitantly. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the three nobles exchange fleeting glances, but she ignored them. Over his shoulder, Elise’s eyes bulged and her mouth hung open—but Rhysa ignored her friend, too.

He turned to the others. “Very well. I have met her. Shall we get started?” With that abrupt transition, he walked to the nearest chair and relaxed into it. The others broke their paralysis and chose chairs for themselves.

“Would you like anything to drink, Highness?” Lady Kasteryn asked.

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