The sky was darker than the inky depths of the castle’s moat as I scurried past the guards and into the vast gathering of servants. The air was thick and heavy, the summer heat dragging every last ounce of energy from our sweating bodies. The servant's dress I had borrowed the night before clung uncomfortably to my skin, leaving me fidgeting against the cheap linen.
A group of girls stood by the edge of the courtyard, giggling and whispering. I watched them from a distance, trying to guess each girl’s station. I recognised one of the older girls, Marguerite. She had begun working for the kitchen staff almost two years ago, and had recently been promoted to apprentice under the head of housekeeping. She hadn’t shut up about it for days.
Hiding in plain sight seemed like the most sensible option, so I slipped closer into the group of girls, silent as a ghost. My heart thrummed in my chest, anticipation and nerves mixing to leave my hands shaking.
I stood, waiting. Sooner or later, one of the castle staff would arrive to order us around, sending us to various stations. The castle was large and imposing on the outside, but the inside was a maze of dark corridors, leaving you turning in circles until you finally stumbled upon your destination. The gardens were bright and full of colour by day, with blooming flowers and fresh fruit hanging from every other tree, like jewels in the sunlight. I stared up at the finely painted windows, barely visible in the pale moonlight. My eyes strained in concentration, I didn’t notice my friend sliding between the crowded bodies, her hand gripping my wrist and dragging me into the shadows.
‘What the hell are you doing?’ Wren hissed, shoving me against a far wall, concealed from the crowd by darkness.
‘I’m a servant now.’ I shrugged, gesturing helplessly at the tattered dress clinging to my frame. Wren took in my appearance with a raised eyebrow. Her hair was perfectly curled, ringlets falling effortlessly over her shoulders. Her eyes were the same silver as the jewellery she wore, glittering in the moonlight.
‘You are not.’ She grimaced, folding her arms. ‘Why are you here? What are you planning?’
‘You have such little faith in me!’ I frowned, crossing my own arms and glaring at her.
‘Well! In that case, dear friend, please do tell me what honourable agenda has you mixing with the servants at three o’clock this morning!’ Wren hissed, her voice rising steadily.
‘Okay, fine.’ I groaned, defeated. Wren may be small, but her ferocity is not to be underestimated. ‘I just need to borrow something.’
‘Borrow something.’ Wren repeated, not even bothering to hide the scepticism in her voice.
‘Yes, borrow something.’ I told her, rolling my eyes.
‘And what something might that be?’ Wren frowned. I hated that look. Disapproval. ‘The last time you borrowed something, it was not returned, and I ended up scrubbing my brother’s chamber floors for a week!’
‘I’m sorry, Wren, I really am. But I cannot tell you what I came here for.’ I shook my head. There was absolutely no way Wren would allow me into the castle if she knew the truth of my plan, despite her being my oldest and only friend.
‘Then you cannot come in.’ Wren shrugged, turning away.
‘Wren, please.’ I whispered, my heart pounding.
‘Isolde.’ She sighed, her body deflating under the weight of what I was asking her to do. ‘I cannot simply let you in, knowing that you are about to steal some precious item from my family. Not again.’
I frowned, surprised at her bluntness. She usually took the care to at least pretend that she didn’t know what I was doing.
‘This isn’t like anything I’ve ever done before.’ I tried, desperate to make her understand.
‘Then what is it?’ Wren asked, turning only slightly. One side of her face was lit by the light of the moon, while the other remained hidden in shadow. It made me shiver.
‘They promised me an education.’ I whispered, and Wren’s body visibly tensed.
‘Some trader.’ I shrugged. Wren groaned, and I quickly embellished my story. I needed her to believe in me, more than she ever had before.
‘He arrived the day before last, with a ship full of gold and a crew of almost twenty.’ That part was true, at least. ‘I saved one of his men from drowning after he drunkenly fell into the river. He said he would give me a place on his ship, along with a basic education.’
‘A somewhat strange bargain, don’t you think? Why would he care for your education? He’s never met you before.’ Wren frowned, her eyebrows furrowed. I swallowed. I didn’t have an answer for that.
‘Told me his daughter needed a new serving maid, and that she is highly educated herself. She could teach me.’ I lied. Wren appeared to be digesting this information, her eyes pinned on mine with a terrifying ferocity.
‘And you trust this man? This stranger?’
‘I trust nobody.’ I whispered. Pain registered on her face for the briefest of moments, before she looked away.
‘What do you need?’ Wren sighed, resigned. ‘I’ll find you some fine silver jewellery, gold pieces even.’
‘I have something in mind.’ I frowned, knowing she would press me for more information than I was willing to give her.
‘What is it, if you tell me, I can find it and bring it to you. It will be less risky.’ Wren offered. I shook my head.
‘I can’t let you do that. What if you get caught?’
‘What if you get caught? They’re far less likely to hang the Princess than a poor servant girl.’ Wren snapped. I flinched.
‘I’m going to retrieve it myself.’ I told her, lifting my chin defiantly. Retrieve was a much nicer word than steal.
‘Fine, but it’s your funeral.’ Wren huffed, her face as dark as thunder.
‘Just let me into the castle, and pretend you never saw me.’
The air inside the castle was stale and smelt of smoke and cooked meat. I hated it. My dress was a few inches too long for my petite frame, and dragged against the stone floor as I made my way through the servant’s passages.
I had stolen from the Prince many times, and I had never been caught. Prince Harland was obnoxious and rude, and I felt little remorse for all of the trinkets I had stolen and sold over the years. Wren was a good sister, but he treated her like dirt. He treated everyone like dirt.
Passing the kitchens, I gathered a pitcher of water and a plate of freshly prepared cakes, placing them on a serving tray. Making my way through the castle, I stopped before I reached the Prince’s chambers. Two guards stood silently on either side of the door, their eyes watching the shadows. I didn’t recognise either face, and let out a quick sigh of relief before hurrying up the steps towards them. The one on the left was almost as wide as he was tall, with a thick beard and heavy eyebrows above his angry little eyes. The one on the right stood tall and still, his face pale and freckled. He looked thin enough to be blown over in even the slightest of breezes.
‘What do you want?’ Demanded the guard on the left, his eyes darting towards me. I took a steadying breath, and reminded myself that my snide remarks often bought me more trouble than I needed.
‘I have been asked to bring water and these freshly baked cakes to Prince Harland.’ I told him, bending into a curtsy. He eyed the tray of food in my hands and snorted.
‘Of course you have.’ He grunted, nodding for me to step forward. He pushed the door open, but before I could step through, his arm shot out to block my path. I froze, barely managing to stop myself before the pitcher of water flew from the tray. I looked up at the guard, unsure what to expect. He reached down and plucked one of the delicate cakes from the plate, before nudging the second guard and shoving me forwards again.
‘Don’t bother the Prince.’ The second guard told me, snatching his own cake. ‘Deliver the food and leave.’
I stepped through the doorway, looking around frantically for a place to set down the tray. It was dark, a single candle the only source of light in the room. It took a moment for my eyes to adjust, and I frowned. The Prince didn’t appear to be in the room. Unsure of what I had done to deserve such luck, I hurried towards the desk, and placed the tray beside the candle. In the darkness, I quickly but carefully studied my surroundings. I had stolen many items from the Prince, but never had I found myself in his private chambers. Truthfully, I had never been this desperate.
The room was large, but cluttered. Thick tapestries hung on each wall, making me feel hot and closed in. The window was as finely painted as any of the others, with colourful imagery and glittering accents. The stone floors were covered here and there with plush carpets, likely made from wolf pelts. I ran my fingertips along the wall, feeling the expensive embroidery of the tapestries against my skin. Finally, I stopped, returning to the task at hand. I had only a minute or two to find what I was looking for before the guards became suspicious.
Silently, I headed towards the ornate dresser, and pulled open the first drawer. I spent only a few seconds rummaging through the contents before moving onto the next. When the drawers failed to reveal the hidden treasure, I turned to the large wooden chest by the door. The hinges were gold and the lid was engraved with dragons and other mythical beings. I paused, listening for the guards. When no sound alerted me of their presence, I hurried to the chest, my pulse beating wildly. I lifted the lid, and inside lay the ruby bracelet, the gemstone the deep red of blood. Just as my fingers touched the jewellery, a voice echoed through the dark room.
‘Who’s there?’ a male voice, and one I recognised instantly. Shit.
‘Oh, Your Highness, I do apologise if I woke you!’ I cringed, quickly stuffing the bracelet into the hidden pocket of my dress. I stood, shuffled forward until I was in the Prince’s line of sight, and bowed.
‘Oh, it’s only you. You did not wake me.’ He grumbled, pushing the hair from his face. He was two years older than me, having just turned twenty-six. His hair was the reddish-brown that he shared with every other member of the royal family. It fell in loose curls, framing his angled face.
‘Yes, it is only me. I was just searching for another candle, Your Highness.’ I said, thinking on my feet.
‘I don’t need a candle.’ He snapped, sitting at his desk. ‘Did you bring this?’ He gestured at the tray of water and cake. I nodded, mutely.
‘Well, bring me some wine instead.’ He demanded, taking one of the cakes and inspecting it as if it might be poisoned. I bit my tongue, and nodded. Turning towards the door, I froze as his hand closed around my wrist. He had moved so quickly I scarcely had time to breathe before he was beside me.
‘What do you have in your pocket?’ He sneered, his eyes narrowed.
‘Oh, just a rag.’ I sighed, shrugging. I gently laid my hand on top of his, looking up at him through my dark lashes. It pained me to play the part of the young, naive servant, desperately in awe of the Prince. But, it had to be done. He opened his mouth to deny me, but before he had the chance I turned to face him. ‘Which of the wines shall I bring you, my Prince?’
‘Which wine?’ He asked, slightly taken aback. I smiled serenely, clasping my hands together to appear as innocent as a thief could possibly look.
‘I can imagine that you must have impeccable taste.’ I purred, and he smiled at the compliment.
‘Why, whichever new red my Father has just procured.’ He replied, a little dazed, but fighting to appear in control. Carefully, I placed the rag back into my pocket, ensuring it hid the stolen jewellery.
‘Pardon me for asking, my Prince, but has the King not recently returned from a trip to visit Lady Hargrave? I have heard stories of the beauty of her vineyards, the wine must be excellent!’ I exclaimed, playing the part of the young, naive servant. The Prince chuckled.
‘You are correct. My Father was visiting on business and returned with many bottles of the wine you have heard so much about.’ Prince Harland smirked, buying into my innocent serving-girl act. I smiled as he spoke, trying my best to appear fascinated by what he was telling me. Although honestly, I would rather have cut off my own ears than spend any more time with the obnoxious prince than was completely necessary.
‘Why, if you were to fetch me some, I may even allow you a taste.’ He whispered, his lips mere inches from my ear. I turned my face just enough that he could not see my own smug smirk. When he moved away, I deliberately hid my face again, as if blushing.
‘Of course, my Prince.’ I bowed, hurrying out of the room and past the guards. My heart thumped and my hands shook, as I hurried down the steps and out towards the servant’s exit.
As I made my way out of the castle grounds, I turned to see Wren watching me from the balcony of her chambers. Her silhouette stood stark against the pale light behind her, the gentle breeze blowing her hair. I nodded at her, before turning and hurrying away towards the dirty streets of the surrounding town. As I walked, my hand found the ruby bracelet in my pocket.