Doreana Cranmere took the order and pretended to study it for appearances sake. She glanced through a few sentences ...by Royal decree...from this day shall be deemed to be....you are ordered to release... but none of it mattered. There was the ornate seal, which only a master craftsman could have forged. She nodded at Ava and Roslyn who were waiting in the doorway, nervous and pale as milk though they'd been through it before nearly as often as she herself. They vanished at once and she heard them hurrying away, calling to the children with voices that were a little harsher and more urgent than usual.
The men crowding her small receiving room waited silently, four soldiers and two who looked like they might be clerks. These last two never spoke, and there were always two of them, always a different two, wearing clothes that were well-made without being ostentatious, smart without being fashionable. Doreana did not study them too closely, but lowered her eyes to the desk and shuffled the papers on it and then folded her hands until she judged it was time.
She looked up and met the eyes of the Lieutenant. He said nothing, only inclined his head and gestured politely that she should lead the way. Doreana stood and left the room, the guards and clerks falling into step behind her. Her legs felt stiff, unsteady, as if unused suddenly to walking. She hoped this did not show. Although she was doing her best to be businesslike and calm, she was aware that she must look very much like a woman being marched to a gallows.
Ava and Roslyn had done their part. Doreana guessed they had probably been assisted by some of the older children. The chairs and tables in the dining room had been moved aside and stacked against the South wall and the children were lined up, hands clasped loosely behind their backs, faces and necks scrubbed, some with damp hair clinging wetly to their cheeks. They did not move when she came in, or stare too much at the soldiers and Doreana felt a surge of pride that made her catch her breath. She covered this with a cough and turned to face them.
"Children, today some of you will be leaving. His Majesty the King has sent these soldiers to select some of you who will be taken into the custody of the Court. This means you will go to work for the King himself, for our Country, which is extremely important. You will receive training - maybe working in great houses or estates or perhaps even the Royal Palace. It is a great thing His Majesty does; you will all gain many skills, learn a trade which will keep you all your lives. I know you are all good, hard-working children. Seeing you now I feel proud and I know you will all try your very best. Now I'd like you all to be as still and quiet as you can and let these gentlemen look at you."
Doreana managed to say all she wanted to say before her voice became choked and now took a step back, indicating the men could begin. As they began their inspection she watched the children. Some were dearer to her than others, but she would never admit it aloud. If they took Natty Robeson and Ivo Thern with them today she would not be so very sorry. Every three or four years the Kings men came, and she knew that most of children they took prospered because there were always some who kept in touch; Talitha Agner who was nursery-maid now to a family in Tollishill but who still visited twice a year, Jon Young who worked in the King's own stables and Finch Carrow, gardener at the Queen's Summer Park. Yes, it was sad, but the children would do well by it, Doreana told herself. And the generous Gift the Orphanage received each time would allow her to keep the rest warm and full.
The two gentlemen, the clerks, walked up and down the rows of children. They ignored the very youngest, but subjected the rest to a searching scrutiny after which they either passed on or tapped the child on the shoulder. The tap was a signal for that child to move to stand near the soldiers. The group near the soldiers grew steadily, from three to eight to eleven until finally fifteen children stood waiting, torn between hope and fear, and between sadness and joy, trembling in their uncertainty. Natty and Ivo were part of this group and Doreana felt guilty at once for wishing them away. They looked so young, so defenceless and unsure. She swallowed down the tightness in her throat.
The formal part of the proceedings was now over and Roslyn led the remaining children out of the hall. Some were near tears and would need comforting, as several had just witnessed an elder brother or sister about to be taken away from them. The clerks had also declined most of the oldest children - those who would soon be grown. Whether they were angry or disappointed they hid it better than the little ones, but they would need attention too. Then there were those who had known they would never be picked, resigned always to be last and least: Marylla Lamb, her face disfigured by a large burn scar that pulled her mouth into a sad leer; Aleck Hoddis who's left leg was withered and twisted; Sebastien Vead, smaller than a five year old though he was nearly twelve and bowed in both legs. Perhaps a special treat was called for? Four years ago, using some of the King's Gift, she and Ava and Roslyn had taken the children on a trip to a pleasure garden. They'd all enjoyed a picnic on the banks of the lake and there'd even been enough money for each child to have a penny bun with white and pink icing afterwards.
She looked towards the group of children; the chosen fifteen, all between seven and ten years of age. She addressed them again, alternating between stern warnings and warm congratulations. Few of the children took in all she said, having long perfected the art of seeming attentive. Their minds were overwhelmed, busy with thoughts of the future. Natty Robeson was wondering if he worked in a kitchen how much of the food he would be allowed to eat, and if not allowed, how much he could take through other methods. Philip Little was wholly occupied with a pressing need for the privy and was squirming uncomfortably, growing red in the face. Carrie-Anne Lowesy was thinking about her little brother, Thos Epps about his older brother. Jame Rillen had an awful feeling he'd be terrible at everything and would be sent back. Sophy Posterns was wondering if she could run away, and whether Miss Cranmere would take her in if she did. Only two children heard everything that Doreana Cranmere told them; Ivo Thern because he considered it a final salute to an old and valiant adversary and Becca Merryman because she thought she should.
Eventually Miss Cranmere finished speaking and the children were allowed to run to fetch and pack what little they owned. A little later they were each given an apple and a kiss before clambering into an open wagon drawn up in the courtyard. One of the soldiers got up in front with the two gentlemen and took up the reins. The other soldiers fell into step behind as the wagon started up and trundled, creaking and swaying, through the heavy iron gates of St. Cecilia's Orphan House. Miss Cranmere, Ava, Roslyn and the remaining children had gathered to say their goodbyes, waving handkerchiefs and calling out.