“The Servant’s Voice”: an excerpt (Spoilers)
Eighteen years earlier, the twins had been twelve years old. This was a suitable age to start work, and for them it was more urgent than most, their little sister being sickly, and taking up so much of their parents’ time and money. An apprenticeship was found for Brinnon with the tailor Hanno – and then a neighbour told them that the b’Nida were looking for a servant – presentable and silent and alert. “That sounds like you,” said her mother. “D’you think so?” Hridnaya asked in shy awe. The b’Nida had a good name.
A good name, but still somebody should accompany her to their house, and her parents were busy, so it was Uncle Gridor who walked with her to Scholars’ Street. Hridnaya wouldn’t have chosen him. He was cheery, and told good stories, but he was also the embarrassing uncle, the one who ruffled your hair, and laughed too loudly, and sometimes got drunk, to his wife’s loud annoyance. However.
They went to the side entrance and were allowed inside (how could a house be so big?), and escorted upstairs (stairs inside, with pictures on the walls!) and into a room with ceiling-to-floor tapestries that she longed to study. Uncle Gridor stood behind her, as she was beckoned to a seat on one side of a table, and she sat down opposite Lord b’Nida himself, and his Housefather Bakker. Narrim was only a deputy then. The Lord was dignified, with hair beginning to thin, and a very tidy grey beard; Bakker was a chubby old man with a gravelly voice.
She trembled, a shy girl who’d never been addressed by such high people before.
Bakker asked questions, and she answered as well as she could. Then he told her a list of names and asked her to recite it back, to test her memory. He sent her scurrying around the room with plates, to see if she dropped things. He watched her sew a seam, and make up a fire in the hearth. And he asked for her priest’s letter as evidence that she was of good character and attended church regularly – and made her recite the Apostles’ Creed, to prove she listened when she was there.
“You’ll have your own sleeping chamber, and three meals a day. You may take Sunday afternoons for yourself if you’re not wanted for anything particular. And the Lady and Lord will pay you one silver piece every month, in exchange for your loyalty,” he said.
“How many is that in two years?”
“Er – twenty-four,” she said, passing a test in arithmetic. But the world was shaking around her. A silver piece every month! How could anyone be paid so much?
“If you are willing to be employed, please write your name here.” There was a piece of parchment with writing on it. Hridnaya went cold. Now she was going to fail.
“I am sorry, my lord, honoured sir. I cannot write.”
“Make your mark, then,” Bakker said a little irritably. “Underneath where it says ‘on this day.’”
She stared miserably at the parchment. “I can’t read those words.”
Long afterwards she realised that this was the final test, the test of illiteracy, and she’d just passed it.
Bakker looked at his master. “Satisfactory?”
The Lord nodded.
Hridnaya’s stomach fizzed with triumph. They’d never want for money again! Little Siri might even get well!
But Lord b’Nida looked serious. He hadn’t spoken before, but now he leaned across the table, and said, “Hridnaya, daughter of Haidi. You’re very young. Do you understand that this is a Voiceless position? Do you know what that means?”
“To be silent, to be secret, yes, of course, my lord,” she gabbled.
He opened his mouth, but then from behind her Uncle Gridor spoke. “Voiceless? Is that -? No, she didn’t know, and she doesn’t want the place. Come, niece.”
She hated being called “niece.” She had a name. “I do want it!”
“No, Hridnaya! No, you don’t!” He put a hand on her arm, to pull her up and away.
Hridnaya burned with shame. He was disgracing her in front of her employers; they might withdraw the offer; they might never forgive her.
She stood up, but wrenched her arm free, and turned to the two men. “I will do it, if I may – I will – Please -”
“You don’t know what it means!”
“It’s her choice,” said Lord b’Nida, and he and the Housefather stood also, and beckoned her to the back entrance of the room.
And she walked with them.
“Voiceless is for life! You mustn’t do this! Hridna, listen to me!” she heard desperately from behind her.
Later, she heard that he went on shouting until they had him thrashed and thrown out into the street. She heard that her parents didn’t speak to him for a month, and he spent much of that month drunk.
But that was later. On that day eighteen years before she walked into the hall of her new home, and learned what being Voiceless meant.
Love from the PPI Blogger
PS Apologies to those who’ve read the above already.