‘Please don’t damage that dress,’ Vincent pleaded as Rowena adjusted it in front of the mirror early the next morning. Cecelia would never forgive me if it got ripped.’
‘I promise I will bring it back in one piece,’ Rowena said, smoothing down her apron. It wasn’t the most flattering dress she had ever worn. Apart from the bodice, the dress had very little shape or colour, being completely grey apart from the small white collar and hem, and the white pressed apron she wore on top of it. Her hair was tied back into a tight plait so no one would see it at its full glory. ‘What do you think?’ She said, turning round to face Vincent. ‘Do I look the part?’
‘You look perfect, as always my lady,’ Vincent smiled. ‘Now we need to get going or I’ll be in trouble for being late.’ He hurried her out of the room, locking the door behind them, giving Rowena time to put on the thick black cloak that was part of the uniform, before they stepped outside.
She was immediately grateful for the cloak, as there was a cold wind blowing from the west; the first of the season, and the cold was biting as they hurried down the streets. Vincent obviously knew his way around the city, not hesitating as he turned corners and walked confidently down the streets. He was walking so fast Rowena had to jog to keep up with him.
‘So who is Cecelia?’ Rowena asked. ‘She must be a very good friend if she would lend you her uniform.’
‘Well,’ Vincent said, blushing. ‘She is very kind to me…’ His voice trailed away, blushing with embarrassment.
‘Well I’m glad to hear it. It’s nice to know that someone might be getting their perfect happily ever after.’ It made her sad that she knew that what she wanted could never be, apart from the fact that Artem was dead, he wouldn’t want to fit in to her world.
‘Do you really think so?’ Vincent asked eagerly. ‘I mean, do you think someone could love me?’
‘What sort of a question is that? You are a good human being, much better than you give yourself credit for. You deserve someone who loves you.’ There was no reply from Vincent, and they walked the rest of the way in silence.
Rowena was led to the back of the palace, away from the main gate and towards the servant’s entrance. There was a guard on the door, but he didn’t bat an eyelid when he saw Vincent, and nodded them both through. She breathed an inward sigh of relief, knowing the first obstacle was over.
‘I can’t take you all the way to the King’s chamber,’ Vincent said, looking very nervous. ‘But I can get you to his wing. I assume you know the different corridors and passageways around the palace.’
‘Good. Then I’ll take you to the top of the servant’s stairs in the east wing of the palace, nearest to the King’s chambers. You should be able to find your way from there.’ Rowena nodded, praying that her memory would not fail her.
Vincent led her through a labyrinth of winding passageways that made up the servant’s quarters. At first Rowena was worried about the number of servants passing her and Vincent, scared that someone would recognize her. But she soon learnt that no one was paying any attention to what was going on around them, much less to the strange servant girl who was walking in the other direction.
At the end of the corridor there was a door, which Vincent opened, holding it open so Rowena could step in first. The room was home to a narrow staircase, winding up and up for as far as Rowena could see. Her head began to spin as she searched the tower for the top, failing miserably.
‘Come on,’ Vincent said, pushing her towards the stairs. They climbed up and up for what felt like a small eon, but what in reality must have only been a few minutes. They stopped on the fourth landing they came to, Rowena having to pause so her head would stop spinning. She’d had no idea what spiral staircases could do to your head. ‘This is where I leave you,’ Vincent said, putting a reassuring hand on Rowena’s shoulder.
‘You can’t leave me here,’ Rowena said, suddenly panicking. ‘What will I do if someone sees me and notices that I don’t work here?’
‘I’m sure you will be able to think of something my lady. Say you are extra help that has been brought in for the celebratory feast tonight.’ Rowena nodded, storing the excuse away in the back of her mind. ‘Now I really must go.’ Rowena pulled Vincent into a big hug.
‘Thank you so much for everything Vincent. I promise you I will not forget this,’ she whispered in his ear.
‘I know you won’t my lady.’ She gave him a peck on the cheek and carefully opened the door onto the hallway as he headed back down the stairs.
The corridor was deserted and Rowena’s large men’s boots made no noise on the thick carpet. She immediately recognized where she was from the giant tapestry of a hunt across from the door. She turned right and walked quickly and silently down the hallway. She would have loved to stop and admire all the things she had missed about her home, but she knew she had to find her father as soon as possible, so kept her head down and walked on.
She had just turned onto the hallway that led to her father’s room when a voice called out at her. ‘Hey! You there! Stop!’ Rowena froze. This is it, she thought. I’m going to get thrown out and I haven’t even managed to get into my father’s chambers.
It was too late to run, so Rowena turned, head bowed so the approaching guard couldn’t see her face from straight on.
‘What do you think you are doing in here with that on?’ He gestured at her cloak, which was still hanging around her shoulders. ‘You know the rules. No outdoor wear is to be seen by their majesties. Especially on today of all days when you know everything must be perfect.’
‘Pardon me sir,’ Rowena said in her smallest voice. ‘I was called up to see his majesty as soon as I arrived and forgot to take it off.’
‘What business does a serving girl like you have with his majesty?’ The guard’s eyebrows rose as Rowena struggled for an answer. ‘Well?’
‘I do not know sir,’ Rowena confessed. ‘When I arrived I was given a message to attend the King in his chambers. There were no other instructions.’ She held her breath as she waited to see if the guard believed her or not.
‘Very well,’ he said reluctantly. ‘But don’t let me see you in that cloak up here again.’
‘Of course sir. I’ll make sure of it sir.’ She breathed a sigh of relief as he disappeared out of sight around the corner. She almost ran the last few metres to the door of her father’s chambers, only pausing for a second before she opened the door and entered.