Authors: Megan Hart
Table of Contents
Five Principles of the Order of Solace
1. There is no greater pleasure than providing absolute
2. True patience is its own reward.
3. A flower is made more beautiful by its thorns.
4. Selfish is the heart that thinks first of itself.
5. Women we begin and women we shall end.
Stillness Faine had never been assigned to a house so modest it didn't have a name. What sort of man was Edward Delaw, to hold such a high position within the Court of Firth and yet abide in a house as humble as this? She paused with her hand on the front gate to look it over before making her way down the crushed shell path to the front door.
"You be all right, mistress?"
She turned to look back at the driver of the carriage she'd hired to bring her from Pevensie station. "Yes, Thomas, thank you. Master Delaw is expecting me." Thomas gave the house a dubious look. "You sure? He might've sent for you, if he was."
"I arrived early," she assured him. "The mountain pass thawed a bit sooner than anticipated. I was able to travel more swiftly than the Order predicted. I'll be fine." He looked her over. She knew he saw a small woman with dark blonde hair pulled into a thick braid spilling down her back. She was clad in a dark plum traveling gown of modest Cut and sturdy fabric. She carried a trundle-bag in one hand and her overcoat, too heavy for the early spring weather, in the other.
She wondered if her appearance disappointed him.
"Right." He nodded again and clucked to the horses. "Well, I'll be back this way tomorrow after, if you need a ride back."
She returned her attention to the house. Spring green ivy climbed redbrick walls, and the gabled roof spoke of cozy, tucked-away garret rooms. Smoke from the chimney wisped its gray tail against the background of blue sky.
Shells crunched beneath her soles, and ten strides took her to the front door. She smiled at the sight of the knocker, a pixie's face done in copper with the ring through its nose. Fine details showed the owner of this house had a sense of humor and style, too, no matter the lack of lavish wings and gardens.
She took a moment to center herself before she knocked. Each assignment was to be met face forward, but every time she faced a new patron her stomach churned. The trick was to keep her inner turmoil from showing. After all, a patron who sent to the Order of Solace for a Handmaiden had certain expectations.
She recited the five principles under her breath and calm overtook her. Before she could lift the knocker, the door opened so fast she stumbled. In the next moment she was pushed back by the man ejecting himself from the doorway.
"Later," he was saying over his shoulder. "Hello! What's this?" In one swift motion he moved and spoke, reaching for her to keep her from falling. His fingers gripped her upper arm while the other hand came around to grab her wrist. He pulled. Nessa regained her feet.
"Who are you?" the man she thought must be Edward Delaw demanded. He let her go, and Nessa shook the folds of her gown around her ankles, straightening her appearance swiftly. "I'm your Handmaiden, my lord Delaw. You sent for me?"
"You weren't due for another fortnight."
"I was able to travel faster than anticipated. I trust it's not an inconvenient time for my arrival?"
"I'm just off to Pevensie to see Prince Cillian's latest toys. I'll be home later. See to it Margera gets you settled." He looked down at the worn trundle-bag at her feet. "Is that all you brought?"
"Aye, my lord, I—"
"Ah, yes." His lips tightened in what might have been meant as a smile. "Yes, the Order informed me I'd be responsible for providing for you. Very well. I shall make arrangements for that while I'm in town."
He started off down the path again, shouting out to the man who'd brought round a prancing black horse from the back of the house. "Oi, Peter! Hurry, lad, I must be off!" Her new patron swung up on the back of the horse, slung the leather bag Peter handed him round his neck, and urged the horse into motion.
It wasn't the most illustrious -greeting she'd ever had, to be sure. "Hello," she called as Delaw vanished down the lane. <
Peter turned, eyebrows lifting. "Hello. Pleading your mercy, but— ah, yes. You must be the Handmaiden, and thank the Invisible Mother you've arrived."
"I am." Nessa paused as Peter strode toward her and bent to lift her bag. He opened the front door for her. "Though I fear I must ask . . . why so happy to see me?" Peter chuckled and stepped aside to let her through. "Because he's a right bit of a cranky bastard, our lord Edward, and frankly, Mum and me is afeared if he don't get some solace, he'll rant himself into apoplexy."
"Ah." A simple enough answer, and not unexpected. "I'll do what can.
"Mum! She's here!" Peter led the way down a short hall toward the back of the house. The scent of baking bread and other good smells set her mouth watering. Her stomach made a loud, embarrassing noise. Peter laughed.
"Mum'll take good care of you. Get you fed. I'll take your bag up to your room."
"Thank you, Peter." Nessa smiled at him, and he gave an exaggerated bow and a wink.
The plump woman bending over to pull something from the oven straightened, her cheeks flushed. "Sinder's Arrow, Peter, must you holler like you've been stabbed? Who's this, then?"
"It's—" Peter stopped. "Your mercy, mistress, I didn't catch your name."
"Stillness." She stepped forward to greet the other woman. "Stillness Faine." Margera snorted. "Someone's parents on the worm, were they?" Nessa took no offense to the suggestion her parents abused the hallucinogen-laced wine popular among the wealthy. "Stillness is the name I was given when I joined the Order of Solace. You may call me Nessa, if you'd prefer."
Margera gave Nessa an obvious looking over. "I'm Margera. The affrighted one in the corner's Abbie."
Abbie squeaked at being so singled out and backed farther into the corner.
"Hello, Abbie." The girl didn't return Nessa's smile, but Nessa took no offense at that, either.
"She's afeared you'll bite her." Margera jerked her chin at the girl. "Abbie takes care of the downstairs, here. I told her not to worry, that you were certain not to bite. At least, not her."
Abbie squeaked again and fled the kitchen. Margera looked after her with a shake of her gray curls. "She's tetched, I swear on the Holy Mother's Milk. Peter! You leave those sugar buns alone, else I swear by the Arrow I'll cut off your fingers!" Peter muttered, grabbed up a handful of the buns, and fled after Abbie. Margera turned to Nessa. "He'll be the death of me. Do you have children?"
"No." The question never failed to sting, no matter how much time passed.
"I suppose you'll be wanting some food."
"I would be grateful, yes. I'm fair famished."
"You could use a hearty meal or two, by the Quiver." Margera's disapproval was clear in her tone. "A good wind could blow you away."
Nessa laughed. "Hardly. My last patron preferred me to be slender."
"The master don't like stick-figured women."
Nessa watched as Margera sliced a brown loaf and set the pieces on a platter along with a crock of butter and a flagon of milk. The cook added a meat pastry and gestured toward the rough-hewn table for Nessa.
"If it pleases my patron for me to be thicker, I'll do my best to be so." Nessa sat, mouth already watering.
"I expected a bit more paint and glitter." Margera bent again to the oven to pull out several pans of bread.
"I've been traveling a fair distance, and for a while. It would hardly have been convenient to gaud myself up for that, would it?"
Margera shook her head and handed Nessa a knife for the butter. "I suppose not. You'll leave off paint and primpery, but you'll starve or stuff yourself to change your body for a man?"
"I will do whatever I can to provide my patron with solace." Nessa thickly buttered her bread.