So, with “St Dymphna’s” in the bag for now, I’ve started on a new Bitterwood Bible story. Here is an extract from “The Night Stair”.
The Night Stair
The Steward is a tall man, entirely bald, gaunt in the face, yet rotund in the belly. His legs in their loose fawn linen trews, look like a scarecrow’s, sticking out under the awning of his gut – perpetually in the shade perhaps they don’t get enough light to grow. His tunic padded blue silk, and his black wool coat with its thick fur collar are too warm for the season, but as marks of his office, must be seen, just like the blue crystal hanging about his neck. Called the “Steward’s Gaze”, it’s a crystal the size of an egg, and has been passed from incumbent to incumbent for as long as anyone has the will to recall. He puts it in his mouth and sucks hard on it when he thinks no one is watching. It’s worth a king’s ransom and I’ll warrant the chatelaine belt around his waist has enough gold in it to buy food for the city for half a year.
His finery makes me aware of the state of my black dress – not that it’s poor or made shiny by age, but it belong to others before me. Both my chosen sisters – my only full-blood siblings – wore it before me, each to her own choosing. It makes my skin paler, my eyes bluer, provides the perfect background for my hair, which pours down my back like gold fresh from the smelter. I was careful, so careful with my toilette: brushing my hair, one hundred strokes; rubbing the cream that was my mother’s (comfrey and rose to soften and plump, with a little lemon balm for lightening) into my skin; drops of eyebright to ensure my gaze is as clear as the Honeydaughter Stream and as steady and blue as the crystal at the Steward’s neck. I refrained from pinching my cheeks – pale is best – but I did nip gently at my lips, to carmine them a little, so it seems as if all life is concentrated there. All so I will not be found wanting.
I stand in a line along with seven other girls who have been presented for this choosing. We are all of an age, none more than sixteen springs, and there is only one of them, perhaps two, who might supplant me. To my right is Essa, with her milk-skin and eyes like the sky seen through ice, hair bright as platinum; she is so pale even her nails seem to have a silvery sheen to them. She watches me from the corner of her eye, just as I watch her.
To my left is Dimity, whose eyes are bright green, her cheeks blushed as a rose, but otherwise looks like a snowflake. She does not look at anyone else, keeps her gaze firmly fixed upon her own feet. Our Lady best likes girls who look like her; that is not Dimity for all her snow-washed whiteness – the eyes are all wrong and the eyes count.
So, Essa. Essa is the one to beat – the Steward will surely select between the two of us.
Also in this large room in the town hall, are other parents including my father, taking the morning off as Superintendant of the Mines to see what deals might be struck with his latest child’s destiny. Behind him are three of my younger half-siblings, those not yet old enough to be presented, but deemed mature enough watch proceedings in order to learn how to behave when – if – their time comes. Another ten still wait at home; not all will be presented, only those who look right, those whose behaviour does not mark them out as more trouble than they’re worth. My father has twice made a small fortune from this process and I imagine he hopes to again – his tendency for taking new wives, sometimes before the old one is done, and his proclivity for procreation constantly require more funds than his well-paid position provides.
The Steward walks slowly up and down our line, as if inspecting troops. His brown eyes are considering, patient, a little uncertain as if presented with several courses at a banquet and told he might only have one. He stops in front of the Toop girl and shakes his head (anyone can see she’s too fat), then the Ansible twins (hair too dark), and then Mistress Garran’s girl (whose neck is smudged by a dark red birthmark); a dismissal for each. At the back of the crowd I hear a woman begin to cry; she is shushed and hustled out – I cannot tell if her weeping was of relief or despair for the desperate whirring of my own thoughts is far too loud.
I straighten my shoulders, lift my chin a little higher, blink quickly so that tears of fear do not start and make the coal-mascara on my lashes run. The Steward makes one more pass; another. He stops in front of Dimity – Dimity! – puts a finger under her chin and makes her look at him. Her lips tremble; he smiles kindly and nods. Essa makes a noise, and this time I know it for relief. The Steward steps back, turns away. All gazes have left us; parents mill around the tall stork of a man to strike bargains; Dimity’s mother to get the highest price, the others to find out when there might be another choosing, as if the Steward can predict Our Lady’s moods to a day and date! Only my siblings still watch, their eyes latched onto me as if by hooks.
Dimity takes her first step forward as a chosen girl and I trip her. Essa’s intake of breath is sharp. The green-eyed girl falls so fast, is so surprised, that she does not put her hands out to save herself. Her face meets the floor with a satisfying crunch of bone and cartilage. There is that tiny broken moment when nothing happens, no one moves, when time is divided into before and after, then, as if a clock’s hands click over, everything starts again, and the girl on the floor wails. I do not move.
Dimity sits up, blood pouring from her ruined nose. She looks at me, her hands twitching as if to point me out, but she catches my stare and I can see her crumple inside. She sobs a little more quietly and when an adult asks what happened, she answers with ‘I fell’.
She will thank me; or rather, she would if she thought about it a little.
The Steward is displeased, but she is no longer presentable. He turns to Essa and I, glaring for a few moments until Essa’s nerve breaks and she steps backwards, in effect removing herself from the field. I am thankful for I have no more tricks.
‘You then,’ says the Steward, giving me a calculating glance. ‘Perhaps you will do best. Your father’s blood runs strong.’
It is not the sort of compliment I have longed for, but I duck my head in assent, then notice that my siblings still watch, mouths agape.
Never let it be said I’ve taught them nothing.