A Pail of White Paint
Thundering hooves on cobblestone rattled vibrations up her body. She hunched over the animal’s neck, cloak tugging against her throat as it swirled behind her.
The stable boy sprinted across the lawn up ahead, dodging potted plants and manicured bushes. She yanked back on the reins and the horse stuttered to an abrupt halt in the dirt just as he reached her. The horse snorted, sides pumping as it sucked in more air and flung foam off its lips. The boy looked in much the same state.
She dismounted, throwing the reins to the panting boy who inhaled to control his breathing, lowering his head, and intoned a polite, “Lady Altarn.”
She swooshed by without a glance.
She entered the manor, the harsh click of her boot heels against the wood floor echoing in the empty hallway. The armorer waited at the counter, a pair of wing-shaped blades at his elbow and a lackluster glaze across his eyes as if to create a wall against the bad mood that followed the lady in.
“Would you like a musician?” he started to ask, but she whisked the winged blades off the counter and continued down the hallway.
Altarn threw open the door into the training yard. Dropping her cloak on the ground, she stomped across the yard to the target constructed out of wooden logs to resemble a person—resemble a man. A small pail of white paint and a brush next to the target claimed her attention. She stared at the pail, disbelief somehow wedging room between her clashing war with anger and hurt.
Do they know me that well? She couldn’t decide if she should be offended or grateful by the gesture.
She decided gratitude.
She dipped the brush in the paint and slashed it across the chest of the target to spell the name, Jessom.
Gathering a winged shorn in each hand, she stepped toward the target and sliced into it with an angry wildness she would disapprove of in her troops. Every strike became harsher, her angry grunts louder. She targeted the chest over and over so the still-wet name there became daggered smears of white paint.
“A shame our enemies don’t actually die that way.” The voice reached her from behind, across the yard, so she wondered how she even heard it at all through her numbness.
She halted, the winged blades clanging as she dumped them at her feet. “Japheron, does my whole manor know of my business?”
The Dethroner leaning against the back wall of the training court came forward and stood next to the molested wood. He must have been doing target practice of his own because he wore a leather vest and matching pants. His brown, military-cut hair splattered against his sweat-glistened forehead and dust speckled his goatee.
“Can we get away from it?” He paused, as if expecting her to defend herself. She didn’t. “What has this man done to you?” He indicated the target, pointing at the damaged name.
“Man is the answer to that question.” She turned a shoulder on him. “Something I should have realized three men ago.”
Japheron opened his mouth to say more but she whisked passed him and marched to her room.
Inside, her court dress had been spread across the bed and a bath warmed in the next room. She looked about for Ratavia, who was so astute at having such things ready for her.
Sure enough, she emerged out of the bathing room, red hair slaved into a bun.
On paper, Ratavia hired into the manor as a laundress. From there, Altarn hoodwinked her into the position as her personal maidservant. She had known her from the time they had tinkered in law school. She had been married at the time and had dropped out during her first pregnancy.
After Altarn had secured the State Head, Ratavia had voiced her financial concerns and had wondered what a mother with a new baby could do about it. On paper, she was a laundress. In reality, she was Altarn’s anchor when the stormy seas of politics threw her about.