Home > Uprooted(7)

Author: Naomi Novik

One day I tried to keep away entirely. I thought if I left his meal early, he might forget about me for a day. I laid his breakfast as dawn broke, then hurried away and hid in the back of the kitchens. But promptly at seven, one of his wisp-things, the ones I’d sometimes seen floating down the Spindle towards the Wood, came gliding down the stairs. Seen close, it was a misshapen soap-bubble thing, rippling and shifting, almost invisible unless the light caught on its iridescent skin. The wisp went bobbing in and out of corners, until at last it reached me and came to hover over my knees insistently. I stared up at it from my huddle and saw my own face looking back in ghostly outline. Slowly I unfolded myself and followed the wisp back up to the library, where he set aside his book and glared at me.

“As happy as I would be to forgo the very doubtful pleasure of watching you flop about like an exhausted eel over the least cantrip,” he bit out, “we’ve already seen the consequences of leaving you to your own devices. How much of a slattern have you made yourself today?”

I’d been making a desperate effort to keep myself tidy so I could at least avoid the first spell. Today I had only acquired a few small smudges making breakfast, and one streak of oil. I held a fold of my dress shut around that. But he was looking at me with distaste anyway, and when I followed the line of his gaze I saw to my dismay that while I had been hiding in the back of the kitchens, I had evidently picked up a cobweb—the one cobweb in all the tower, I suppose—which was now trailing from the back of my skirt like a thin ragged veil.

“Vanastalem,” I repeated with him, dully resigned, and watched a riotously beautiful wave of orange and yellow silk come sweeping up from the floor to surround me, like leaves blown down an autumn path. I swayed, breathing heavily, as he sat down again.

“Now then,” he said. He had set a stack of books upon the table, and with a shove he toppled them over into a loose and scattered heap. “To order them: darendetal.”

He waved his hand at the table. “Darendetal,” I mumbled along with him, and the spell came strangling out of my throat. The books on the table shuddered, and one after another lifted and spun into place like unnatural jeweled birds in their bindings of red and yellow and blue and brown.

This time, I didn’t sink to the floor: I only gripped the edge of the table with both hands and leaned against it. He was frowning at the stack. “What idiocy is this?” he demanded. “There’s no order here—look at this.”

I looked at the books. They were piled into a single stack neatly enough, with like colors next to each other—

“—color?” he said, his voice rising. “By color? You—” He was as furious with me as if it had been my fault. Maybe it did something to his magic, when he pulled strength from me to fuel it? “Oh, get out!” he snarled, and I hurried away full of resentful secret delight: oh, I was glad if I was spoiling his magic somehow.

I had to stop halfway up the stairs to catch my breath inside the stays, but when I did, I realized abruptly that I wasn’t crawling. I was still tired, but the fog hadn’t descended. I even managed to climb the rest of the way to the top of the stairs without another pause, and though I fell onto my bed and drowsed away half of the day, at least I didn’t feel like a mindless husk.

The fog lifted more and more as the next few weeks passed, as though practice was making me stronger, better able to bear whatever he was doing to me. The sessions began little by little to be—not pleasant, but not terrifying; only a tiresome chore, like having to scrub pots in cold water. I could sleep at night again, and my spirit began to recover, too. Every day I felt better, and every day more angry.

I couldn’t get back into the ridiculous gowns in any kind of reasonable way—I’d tried, but I couldn’t even reach the buttons and laces in the back, and I usually had to burst threads and crumple the skirts even to get out of them. So every night I shoved them into a piled-up heap out of the way, and every morning I would put on another of the homespun ones and try and keep as tidy as I could, and every few days he would lose patience with my untidiness and change that one, too. And now I had reached the last of my homespun gowns.

I held that last gown of plain undyed wool in my hands, feeling like it was a rope I was clinging to, and then in a burst of defiance I left it on my bed, and pulled myself into the green-and-russet gown.

I couldn’t fasten the buttons in back, so I took the long veil from the headdress, wound it twice around my waist and made a knot, just barely good enough to keep the whole thing from falling off me, and marched downstairs to the kitchens. I didn’t even try to keep myself clean this time: I carried the tray up to the library defiantly bespattered with egg and bacon-grease and splotches of tea, my hair in snarls, looking like some sort of mad noblewoman who’d run off to the woods from a ball.

Of course, it didn’t last long. As soon as I resentfully said vanastalem along with him, his magic seized me and shook off my stains, squashed me back into stays, piled my hair back upon my head, and left me once again looking like a doll for some princess to play with.

But I felt happier that morning than I had in weeks, and from then on it became my private defiance. I wanted him to be bitterly annoyed every time he looked at me, and he rewarded me with every incredulous scowl. “How do you do this to yourself?” he asked me, almost marveling, one day when I wandered in with a clump of rice pudding on top of my head—I had accidentally hit a spoon with my elbow and flung some into the air—and a huge red streak of jam going all the way down my front of beautiful cream silk.

The last homespun dress, I kept in my dresser. Every day after he had done with me, I went upstairs. I would wrestle my way out of the ballgown, drag my hair out of the nets and headdresses, scattering jeweled pins on the floor, and then I would put on the soft well-worn letnik and the homespun smock, which I kept washed and clean by hand. And then I went down to the kitchens to make my own bread, and I rested by the warm fireplace while it baked, careless of a few smudges of ash and flour on my skirts.

I began to have enough energy for boredom once again. I didn’t even think of taking another book from the library, though. Instead, I went for a needle, much as I loathed to sew. As long as I was going to be drained to the belly every morning to make dresses, I thought I might as well tear them apart and make something less useless of them: sheets, perhaps, or handkerchiefs.

The mending-basket had stood untouched inside the box in my room: there was nothing in the castle to mend but my own clothes, which until now I had been sullenly glad to leave torn. But when I opened it, I found tucked inside a single scrap of paper, written on with a bit of stubby charcoal: the hand of my friend from the kitchen.

You are afraid: don’t be! He won’t touch you. He will only want you to make yourself handsome. He won’t think to give you anything, but you can take a fine dress from one of the guest chambers and make it over to fit you. When he summons you, sing to him or tell him a story. He wants company but not much of it: bring his meals and avoid him when you can, and he will ask nothing more.
How priceless those words would have been to me, if I had opened the mending-basket and found them that first night. Now I stood holding the note, shaking with the memory of his voice overlaid on my halting one, dragging spells and strength out of me, draping me in silks and velvet. I had been wrong. He hadn’t done any of this to the other women at all.

Chapter 3

I huddled in my bed all that night without sleeping, desperate all over again. But getting out of the tower didn’t become easier just because I wanted it more. I did go to the great doors the next morning, and tried for the first time to lift the enormous bar across them, no matter how ridiculous the attempt. But of course I couldn’t budge it a quarter of an inch.

Down in the pantry, using a long-handled pot for a lever, I pried up the great iron cap that covered the refuse-pit and looked down. Deep below a fire gleamed; there was no escape there for me. I pushed the iron lid back into place with an effort, and then I searched all along the walls with both my palms, into every dark corner, looking for some opening, some entry. But if there was one, I didn’t find it; and then morning was spilling down the stairs behind me, an unwelcome golden light. I had to make the breakfast and carry the tray up to my doom.

As I laid the food out, the plate of eggs, the toast, the preserves, I looked over and looked over again, at the long steel-gleaming butcher’s knife with its handle jutting out of the block towards me. I had used it to cut meat; I knew how quick it was. My parents raised a pig every year. I’d helped at butchering-time, held the bucket for the pig’s blood, but the thought of putting a knife into a man was something else, unimaginable. So I didn’t imagine it. I only put the knife on the tray, and went upstairs.

When I came into the library, he was standing by the window-sill with his back to me and his shoulders stiff with irritation. I mechanically put out the dishes, one after another, until there was nothing left but the tray, the tray and the knife. My dress was splattered with oatmeal and egg; in a moment he would say—

“Finish with that,” he said, “and go upstairs.”

“What?” I said, blankly. The knife was still under its napkin, drowning out all my other thoughts, and it took a moment for me to understand I’d been reprieved.

“Are you grown suddenly deaf?” he snapped. “Stop fussing with those plates and take yourself off. And keep to your rooms until I summon you again.”

My dress was stained and crumpled, a ruin of tangled ribbons, but he hadn’t even turned to look at me. I snatched up the tray and fled the room, needing no more excuse. I ran up the stairs, feeling almost as if I were flying without that terrible weariness dragging at my heels. I went into my room and shut the door and tore off my silken finery, put back on my homespun, and sank down on the bed, hugging myself with relief like a child who’d escaped a whipping.

And then I saw the tray discarded on the floor, the knife lying bare and gleaming. Oh. Oh, what a fool I’d been, even to think about it. He was my lord: if by some horrible chance I had killed him, I would surely be put to death for it, and like as not my parents along with me. Murder was no escape at all; better to just throw myself out the window.

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