Thyra drew a slow breath, trying to calm the pounding of her heart. She watched a handmaid draw hot water into a tub. The handmaid kept sneaking glances at her over her shoulder, trying to keep her expression unreadable. She dipped her hand into the water before stepping back, keeping her eyes downcast.
“When you are ready, my lady,” the handmaid said meekly.
Thyra nodded. “Thank you,” she said softly. She started to pull at the fastening on her armor, letting the plates slide from her arms and shoulders.
The handmaid moved quickly to catch the pieces as Thyra pulled them off.
“Oh, that’s not necessary,” Thyra said quickly, tightening her grip around a strap.
“It’s no problem, my lady,” the handmaid assured her, meeting her gaze for the first time. “Please, let me help you.”
Thyra didn’t want to surrender her armor, but as she looked at the handmaid, her grip slackened. She didn’t say anything as she let the heavy metal slide from her fingers.
“Oh my,” the handmaid breathed. “This is much heavier than I thought.”
Thyra felt a swell of pride as she watched the girl perch the chest plate against the wall.
“How do you wear these things?” the handmaid continued.
Thyra looked up at her as she pushed the gauntlets over her arms, realizing that the handmaid was intrigued by her. She watched her carefully through deep brown eyes, awe on her face. “I’m used to it,” she said softly.
The handmaid smiled. “I wish I could have seen you battle,” she said, a grin slipping across her face. “It must have been spectacular.”
Thyra looked down. She didn’t say anything as she pulled at her tunic.
“The rumors are that the prince is quite unhappy,” the handmaid continued, stacking the remaining pieces on top of the chest plate. She giggled softly. “What I wouldn’t give to have seen the look on his smug face.”
Thyra paused, looking over at the girl. “So he’s always like that?”
The girl nodded. “Oh yes,” she said, excited to be gossiping. “He’s extremely…” She waved a hand trying to find the right word.
“Pompous?” Thyra supplied.
The handmaid laughed. “I didn’t say that,” she said, kneeling to dip her hand into the bath water. “But I wouldn’t say you were wrong.”
Thyra felt her lips press into a thin frown. She shed her dirty clothing quickly, hissing at the temperature of the water as she dipped her toes in. It was hot, but it was nice as she slid into it. She hadn’t had a nice bath in longer than she could remember. She closed her eyes when the handmaid began to undo her braid, brushing it with a thick-bristled brush.
“Is this to your liking?” the girl asked.
Thyra nodded. “Yes,” she said softly. It had been longer than she could remember since she’d had someone attend to her like this. It was a luxury that her family had afforded at one point, but that was a long time ago. She glanced over her shoulder. “What is your name?”
The handmaid smiled brightly. “Alice.”
Thyra offered a small smile. “Thank you for your help, Alice.”
Alice continued to brush her hair. “You’re very welcome, my lady,” she said. “May I ask your name?”
“Just Thyra?” Alice asked.
Thyra could tell by the lilt to her voice that Alice had her suspicions. “Yes,” she said softly. “Just Thyra.”
Alice made a soft sound, like she was disappointed, but she didn’t press the issue as she washed Thyra’s hair for her. The smell of lavender oil filled the washroom as Alice poured it into Thyra’s plum-colored hair, brushing it in with her fingers. Thyra was beginning to think that she could stay in the tub forever, but that didn’t last. Once she was sufficiently clean, and the water had become tepid and dirty with the dust from the arena, Alice brought her a towel and clean undergarments.
“Would you like to choose your gown, Lady Thyra?” Alice asked.
Thyra followed her into another room, where a boudoir was set. Several different dresses were laid out for her to choose from. She felt uneasy as she walked toward them, feeling the silks and soft cottons of the dresses. She hadn’t owned a dress in many years.
“Which do you like, my lady?” Alice prompted.
Thyra paused on her second pass, running her fingers over a soft pink dress. “This one.”
“Ah, you have excellent taste, Lady Thyra,” Alice said, taking the gown from where it was laid. “The cotton comes from the southern province. It’s said to be the softest in all of Gexalatia, hand spun to perfection.” Thyra knew that should have impressed her, but the luxuries of the nobility were lost on her these days.
Before long, Thyra was seated at the boudoir in the pink dress as Alice brushed her hair, easing the twisting strands into a simple curl. She tried to avoid Alice’s gaze in the mirror, but she eventually sighed, looking into Alice’s brown eyes.
“Why do you keep staring at me like that?” she asked.
Alice looked down, her cheeks turning pink suddenly. “Forgive me,” she said quickly. “It’s just…the crest on your armor…”
Thyra fought the urge to scowl. “I haven’t been a member of my father’s house in a long time,” she said snappishly.
Alice kept her eyes turned down. “I’m very sorry, my lady,” she said.
Thyra felt bad at the way Alice’s face seemed to crumple. “It’s not your fault,” she said softly. “I just don’t like to talk about it.”
Alice nodded, silent as she continued to smooth Thyra’s plum curls.
Thyra hadn’t seen her father in nearly ten years. After her brother’s death, her father had become a shell of himself, turning cold and cruel. Thyra’s only crime had been that she wasn’t a boy. She could never hope to be loved by her father the way her brother had been, and when she’d turned eleven years old her father had sent her away to live in a monastery. Thyra knew she’d never see him again, and she decided, after a time, that she never wanted to. If he could so easily cast her aside, then she didn’t want him in her life. She forsook him name when she was sixteen and ran away from the monastery. She never wanted to be associated with his banner ever again.
It was only by chance that she met the man who trained her to use a sword. It was at his behest that she entered the contest which led her to the palace.
“You’re finished, my lady,” Alice said, breaking her from her thoughts.
Thyra looked at her reflection in the mirror, feeling her stomach clench. She looked too much like the paintings she’d seen of her mother.
A knock on the door made Thyra’s hands clench, and she watched Alice through the mirror as she answered the door. She spoke briefly to another servant before returning to her. “King Brieuc is expecting you.”
Thyra drew a steadying breath, moving slowly to stand. She wasn’t ready for whatever mess she’d gotten herself into.