The Cold King(6)

By: Amber Jaeger

Dinner was silent, the family picking at the burned remains of meat and vegetables on their plates.

Calia didn’t bother to attempt to eat. She stayed curled up on the small window seat until it was time for her to leave.

When the sun finally began to set, there were no gentle words of encouragement for Calia or well-wishers to see her off. She was given the rattiest cloak in the house and a broken basket to carry the few mementos of her family and life that she was allowed to take.

Her mother gave her a quick kiss on the cheek before shoving her out the door and slamming it shut.

Tears burned her eyes as she stood on the stoop of her former home and no matter how she steeled herself, her knees shook. It took everything in her to take the first step and then the next and the next. No one said anything to her as she passed by on wobbly legs. No one would meet her eye. Calia had never felt so small and unloved. Every moment of cold silence endured while forcing herself through the village stabbed her in the heart.

No one cared.

But the pain strengthened and numbed her. She did not pause as she set foot on the paved road to the castle. It climbed higher into the mountains and soon her calves burned and she gasped in the thin air but still she continued. Birds chirped happily around her and the setting sun gleamed, casting a glow on all of the frost covered trees. It seemed even nature did not care for her sorrow or pain, she noted dully.

As the road wound out between two high mounts, the castle suddenly loomed over the road in the near distance and Calia jerked to a stop, her ashen hair flying over her shoulders. Her new home appeared as cold and magnificent as its king. The cool grey stones of the massive structure blended in eerily with the mountain behind it. One lone spire stood above it all and she wondered if anyone was up there watching for her.

She rubbed her suddenly sweaty hands on her ragged cloak and swallowed hard. Calia hadn’t thought it possible to feel more out of place than she had at home but staring at the imposing castle made her reconsider.

In few minutes she would be at the castle to meet her king and his servants. She looked down at herself and grimaced. She couldn’t meet the king with tangled, sun bleached hair and tattered rags for clothes. Her face flushed with shame and she set her basket down to try to make herself presentable. With shaking fingers, Calia combed through her hair and twisted it into a bun.

Her fingers stilled as she thought. She always wore her hair twisted into a bun when she was cleaning, surely that couldn’t make the best impression. Calia started to take her hair down and stopped when a new thought came to mind – she was supposed to be a servant, so surely he would want her hair tucked up.

The bitter wind froze the tears into her eyelashes while she debated. Finally Calia admitted to herself she had no idea what the king truly wanted from her and wove her hair into the nicest braid she could manage before tucking the end under the collar of her ratty cloak. Then she wiped her face, straightened her dress, picked up her broken basket and took a deep breath.

Presentable or not, she had been chosen and he was stuck with her.

With grim determination she approached her new home and walked through the tall, iron gates signaling entrance into the king’s estate. Her steps echoed off the cobbled courtyard and before she was ready, a set of mammoth wooden doors stopped her monotonous steps. The air was cold and she shivered as the freezing wind whipped her hair and clothes while she paused to gather her courage. Her future was set whether she knocked on the door or not. But her heart still thrummed in her chest and she leaned her forehead against the smooth wood doors to catch her breath.

“He just wants a new servant, surely he cannot mean to harm me,” she prayed against the door.

Unexpectedly it gave way and she fell to her knees in a bright, cavernous hall. Shaken, Calia gave a bitter laugh and climbed to her feet to brush off her dress.

The emptiness was shattered by a quiet voice.

“Are you the one the village has chosen?” Calia jerked up and found herself only inches from another servant, a butler by the looks of him.

His black suit was pressed and clean and he held himself at perfect attention. A vaguely disdainful look was ghosting his face. The lines around his eyes did not seem to agree with his dark, perfectly combed hair and Calia struggled to guess his age. Older than her father would have been if he had lived, she decided. Not that she really cared how old the butler was, she just wanted to how long he had been at the castle.

The man raised a fisted hand to his mouth and gave a discreet cough. He was still waiting for an answer.

Calia could only nod.

“Then follow me.” He turned on his heel and strode down a long hallway. The man was large and strong and Calia struggled to keep up. It did not help that everything caught her eye. The corridor was tall and wide with creamy white tiles and white walls interrupted by giant beveled glass windows. The last of the setting sun’s rays pierced the windows at an angle that fractured them and sent tiny sparks of color over everything. Paintings and decorations were sparse and everything gleamed in the bright whiteness. While it was very beautiful it also seemed very cold.

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