The Servant Girl
In a well-lit corridor deep in the castle's hallways, Elaine is on her knees. There's a scrub-brush clutched in her hands, which are reddened from harsh soap and hot water. The front of her dress is thoroughly soaked with suds. Her legs ache from kneeling on the stone for so long, and her hair is falling in her face.
All in all, it's exactly the kind of day she's used to. She's been working her way from one end of the corridor to the other, cleaning every speck of dirt on her way, since the sun was just peeking up over the horizon, and that's nothing new.
While the castle she lives in is one of the wealthy and privileged, she may as well be at the bottom of the heap. Born to servants, a servant she became.
As bitter as it makes her, Elaine's days are spent cleaning up others' messes and doing as she's told. Bruised knees and raw fingers are just the beginnings of her routine unhappiness. And although she knows she's being spiteful, Elaine can't help but resent it. She scoots back another foot or so and drags the rasping brush along the stone in endlessly repeated strokes. She has a roof over her head and enough food to eat. She shouldn't complain. There are other people who have it worse.
Even when she thinks about that, though, it doesn't make her feel any less unhappy.
Elaine reaches the far wall eventually. She was meant to scrub from one door to the other, and with that done, she lets out a sigh. Standing, she stretches her aching joints and brushes her bangs out of her face... then plops the worn-out scrub-brush into the bucky along with the remaining water. She'd had to get up and refill the bucket six times in the course of cleaning the hallway, and it gives her no small amount of satisfaction to wrap her fingers around the handle for what will be the last time today.
She picks up the bucket and hauls it along with her. It bangs against her knees with every step she takes, earning a small wince every time. She carries it back outside, then dumps the remaining water in the trench that runs refuse outside the castle walls.
From there, it's on to her next job.
Once she's scrubbed her hands of any remaining soap, it's time to change the water in the ladies' basins on the upper floors. This involves hauling a pitcher around from room to room— a job which Elaine doesn't look forward to. It's simple, but the weight of the thing in her arms always makes her muscles burn.
And of course, the work never ends. The castle of the Braegon family isn't the largest one in the kingdom, but it's the most extravagant and well-maintained in their territory.
As for the Braegon family themselves, there are only two.
Cornelius Braegon is a man who Elaine has never met. She's seen him from a distance once or twice, but with his frail health, few are allowed to get too close to him. He's the lord of the second-largest territory in the kingdom, answers only to the king himself, and has ruled kindly over the residents of his land for as long as he's held his throne. Elaine only knows him vaguely, but his white hair and tall figure made her nervous, even from afar.
Apparently, Cornelius had a wife, long ago. The woman died in childbirth, leaving her husband behind. It happened before Elaine herself was even alive, so it's not like she remembers anything about it. The matters of royals are above her, besides that.
The castle is maintained by seemingly countless servants. Elaine doesn't even know them all by name. Considering her easily ignorable, youthful age of seventeen and her utter lack of status, that's no surprise. People give her jobs and orders, she does them, and the process repeats, broken only with time to eat, sleep, and contemplate how meaningless her life is.
It's a dull existence, of course, but she has little room to complain. It could be worse. She could be worse off. That's what everyone around her has always said.
Elaine moves efficiently from room to room. In each, she refills the emptied basins with fresh, clean water. Looking around at the rich decor and ladies' clothes strewn about... it's vaguely depressing. She tries to focus on her work. Tries.
Her slippers tapping on the stone floors sounds much too loud when she's alone. Every time she bends over to fill a basin, her coal-black hair, well past the need for a trim, falls into her face. There aren't many people around this area of the castle in the afternoon. The servants have already completed their morning duties and the maids and other ladies who reside in them are going about their work all around the castle, not lingering in their living quarters. Elaine is more or less by herself.
And... it's hard to say whether she likes that or not. Solitude is calming in its own way, but that strange, lonely feeling that likes to get a grip on Elaine's heart sometimes tends to wander back when she's alone with her mind.
Better than the head maid yelling at her, she thinks.
The work continues. Elaine's feet are sore by the time she's made it through the servants' rooms in the East wing. She's had to step outside and refill her pitcher twice, and each time, the sun has been high in the sky. Fading a bit, but still hovering in the height of a stunning spring afternoon.
Spring is the season for parties and merriment. There are plenty of festivals that come along with the warming weather, and festivals mean work. At Elain's hierarchical level, a celebration is more of a cause of more chores than any kind of respite.
Just as expected, someone is calling for her as soon as she gets back to the general vicinity of the kitchen. No surprise there.
"Yes, Margery?" Elaine replies, setting the pitcher down near one of the larger washing areas.
Margery is one of the older girls in the castle. Not a mature lady quite yet, but with enough seniority that everyone respects her like she is one. She's been a worker at the castle since Elaine was a toddler, and Elaine grew up seeing her fairly often. Even playing together from time to time. Margery has maybe ten years on her and has spent the past decade and then some going out of her way to make friends with any children on the castle's grounds.
She's a sweet woman, but when it comes to work, no one has higher standards. Margery expects things from the other girls that leave everyone sighing and rolling their eyes. She's a pain to deal with when you just want a break.
"Next job, polishing the silver," Margery says. She pauses by Elaine's side for long enough to ruffle her hair fondly. "You're done with the water, right?"
"Yes, I am. I'll get right to it."
Elaine can't help but sigh a bit. Sweat is soaking through her bangs. The blisters on her feet have probably gotten worse from all the walking around today, and her hands ache. A rest would be nice, but it's not like that's going to happen.
"Thank you. I'll be checking over it later, so don't slack! You'll be in trouble if you miss even a spot." Margery smiles when she says it, so it doesn't come off as cruel... but Elaine knows by now that she's not joking. Mess up or fall short, and Margery will make you do your chore all over again.
So Elaine heads to the far side of the kitchen area, where the silver awaits. She picks up a cleaning cloth and some polishing oil on the way, getting a few nods from other servants as she does. This area is busier. There are plenty of people mulling about— mostly girls assigned to housework, just like Elaine herself. Boys tend to be stuck with outdoor duties, and the older women have risen in rank well beyond busy work and simple chores.
Polishing the silver is another slow, tedious job. It involves taking every piece out of the 'to polish' basket, scrubbing every one of them down until it shines, and then arranging them neatly in the drawer by size and type. It takes forever every time.
And that it does. Elaine spends what's probably the next couple of hours just polishing forks and knives until they shine.
By the time she's done, it's time for her evening meal. Elaine stops by the kitchen just in time to grab a small loaf of brown bread (already quite cooled), a hunk of hard, crumbly cheese, and a handful of small onions. She thanks the higher maid politely, as usual, then scurries out of the kitchen before anyone else can give her more work. It's back to her room from here... to hopefully get some rest.
As she's on her way to her room, however, Elaine finds herself taking a bit of a shortcut. And on the way, she passes a particular portrait that's caught her eye a few times before.
It's of Cornelius. The brushwork is delicate and almost hyperrealistic, painted back when the man wasn't quite so ill. In the picture beside him is his son, Nikola, maybe aged around four. Nikola is the lord's only son. Since his mother died birthing him, he's his father's treasure. No one's ever loved a child more, from what Elaine has heard about the two of them.
Supposedly, Nikola all but runs wild. Elaine's never met the young man herself, but she catches rumors from the other servants here and there. They say he's a golden child with hair like soft ocean sand and a smile brighter than a hundred candles. She hears that his laugh stops girls in their tracks and that his hands are huge and strong. Some say that he's a perfect shot with a bow and arrow— he's never once missed the mark. Every rumor feels larger than life, and while some don't paint the 'prince' in such a positive light, the overall opinion of him is stunning.
In a way, Elaine wishes she could see him in person at least once. It's not like he'd ever pay her any mind, but it would be nice to at least see the golden child that everyone speaks so highly of. Nikola is a mystery that she doesn't even begin to understand.
Nikola's father dotes on him. He gets whatever he wants. Both because of his status and the sheer lucky fact that he has a parent who wants him. The thought leaves bitterness stirring in Elaine's chest.
Her parents are dead. They were meager servants, just like she is now, and they both passed away when she was small. Her father, then her mother, and then she was alone in the world. The other maids around the castle raised her, so she was never alone, but there was nothing quite as painful knowing that she'd never have any family to call her own.
And Elaine's life will be a repeat of theirs, she knows. She'll get older, find a young man of her status who will take her as his bride, give him a son and a daughter or two, then die young from hard work just like everyone else. Maybe no one will even marry her. She could always die alone. It would be a fitting end to a girl no one wants. Live alone, die alone, be remembered by none.
Reaching her room, Elaine nudges the door open with its usual creak. She closes it behind her, flips the lock, then settles on her bed. The coarse, pale green sheets wrinkle under her. She takes a large bite of her bread and chews angrily.
Thinking of these things always puts her in a bad mood.
When Elaine lets herself daydream, sometimes, she thinks about what it would be like to fall in love. For someone to really want her. To find a happy ending.
If she met a man who loved her, she'd be happy. That'd be all she'd need. Even if she was stuck as a serving girl forever... no, if she's going to dream, then she might as well imagine it being someone more than that. A man with a home of his own, away from the castle, where scrubbing silver and changing basins would never be her job again. Or better yet, a man with a castle of his own where she'd do something other than serve.
Her husband should take care of her, she thinks. If he was the perfect one, he'd look after her and give her everything she needed. Warm coats in winter, enough food throughout the days, and a place in bed beside him every night. That sounds like what she'd want more than anything.
But daydreams don't get people places, of course, and Elaine knows better by now than to get her hopes up. She chews an onion between her teeth, the sharp flavor filling her mouth and dragging her back to reality by force.
Elaine looks down at her bony, red, calloused hands. They aren't the hands of a lady or a girl who any good man would want to wed. She's a servant and nothing more, and that will never change. Her life is what it is. Pretending otherwise will just make her feel worse.
So she finishes her meal, then changes into her nightclothes. By now, it's late enough into the evening that no one will be stopping by to give her anything else to do. She'll have to be up early in the morning, of course, long before the sun rises, and that means it's smart to get some rest and quit dwelling on silly fantasies. In the real world, she'll wake up in the same bed she's slept in for ten years and go right back to a routine that's lasted for just as long.
Lying down, Elaine pulls her blanket in close around herself. She closes her eyes and breathes a long, slow sigh. Why must her mind wander like this? It'd be easier if she could just quit thinking of strange things.
As exhausted as she is, sleep comes quickly.