So, I have a short story I wrote quite a few years ago for an online fantasy journal that has since folded. But since the story's been published, it's against "the rules" to submit it elsewhere. But I really like the story and would like it to be able to get a new chance at grabbing a few readers. So, I'm just going to toss it on here! It's about a maid in a medieval-esque palace. I hope you enjoy.
Making a Mess of Things
Did the King ever—for one single, solitary second—think about all the extra work he was making for the staff when he flew off the handle and had one of his impromptu executions? On her hands and knees on the floor of the ballroom, scrubbing blood out of the grout of the intricate tilework, Lena did not care one iota that the now-deceased lord had dared to wink suggestively at the Queen. All Lena cared about was that, because of one errant wink from a probably-drunk lord in the middle of a raucous, late-night party, she had been woken three hours before sunrise to clean up all traces of the carnage.
Blood was so hard to clean out of grout.
“It’s just crazy how much blood a body has,” a maid to her left, Nessa, muttered.
‘I am so fed up with this stuff,” Lena complained. “This is the second indoors execution in the past month!”
“Shh!” Nessa hissed. “Someone’s going to hear you! I don’t want to be scrubbing your blood next!”
“I know, I know,” Lena whispered. “It’s just—“
“You’re a maid,” Nessa pointed out. “This stuff’s in your job description. Probably word for word.”
Lena sighed. “I guess. Probably. But that doesn’t mean it’s not disgusting and horrible. A man died last night. This stuff we’re scrubbing out of the grout came from his body!”
“Shh!” Nessa hissed.
“Fine, fine,” Lena grumbled. Nessa did have a point. It was, technically, silly for a maid to complain about having to clean. But Lena was so tired of it. Day after day after day. It never ended. The people who lived in the palace were disgusting. And, before working at the palace, Lena had been a maid at The Festering Cadaver, so Lena knew a thing or two about disgusting. Hell, she knew three or four things about disgusting.
Another thing that made her situation so stressful was that Lena was really only working in the palace as a maid in order to spy for the rebels. It was insanely irritating that she had to clean up after the very people she was plotting against. Nothing rankled the soul like fluffing the pillows of a person who you believed should be meeting the business end of a rebel’s dagger. Lena’s soul was not one that held up well under rankling conditions. The civil war could not come fast enough.
At long last, all traces of the winking lord were scrubbed from the grout. “Awesome,” Lena said, pushing herself up from the ground and wincing at her aching knees. “Maybe I can catch a nap before I’m needed in the kitchens—“
The servants’ entrance to the ballroom swung open, and a maid poked her head around the door. “Lena!”
“Yeah?” called Lena.
“Monin has a job for you!”
Oh great. Lovely. The Head Maid, Monin, hated Lena. Whenever a particularly disgusting job came to Monin’s attention, it was Lena who got the assignment. “Oh?” she asked.
“Yup. In the Grand Wizard’s chamber. Monin said something about a fermented goat stomach exploding?” the woman said, throwing a sympathetic wince Lena’s way before shutting the door.
Lena went to collect her bucket and cleaning supplies. She gritted her teeth. For her own sanity, if for no other reason, this country needed a civil war. Immediately. The very last thing she needed at that moment was one more gross thing to scrub. The Grand Wizard, Virox Beeth, was a complete and utter slob, and a conceited moron who would never think of cleaning up his own mess after blowing up a fermented goat stomach all over his workstation. Honestly. A Fermented goat stomach. Magic was disgusting.
Lena collected her supplies, then winded her way through the dark, narrow servant halls to the chamber of the Grand Wizard.
The door was already open, so she walked in and stopped just inside the doorway, waiting. There was no way he hadn’t heard her approach. Unless he was in some sort of magical trance. But it didn’t look like he was.
Across the cavernous stone chamber, Virox Beeth stood before a massive cauldron, stirring something that was producing a thick orange smoke that curled lazily toward the ceiling. Since Beeth’s back was to Lena, she seized the moment and thumbed her nose at him. Boom. Yeah. Take that, Establishment.
That done, she cleared her throat and said, “Grand Wizard?”
He removed one hand from a long wooden spoon so that he could silence her with a sharp, slicing motion.
She set her bucket of cleaning supplies down as quietly as she could, then folded her arms and waited. She didn’t go so far as to tap her foot, though. Stone floor and massive, echo-y chamber. He might hear.
Time ticked on.
He had totally forgotten she was there.
It looked like there was nothing time-sensitive going on with the cauldron. Nothing that required immense concentration. Just a pompous man in a cape with far too much embroidery, stirring some orange glop. Lena cleared her throat again, and said, “Grand Wizard, it’s just—I got word there was a fermented goat—“
“Right, right,” he said, waving lazily in the direction of his workstation.
Lena sighed, picked up her bucket, and trudged over. She surveyed the damage and concluded that Beeth had been in no hurry to send for a maid—the stuff was dried on. Perfect. Just perfect. She had not thought to throw a chisel in her bucket. Now she’d have to walk all the way back to the opposite side of the palace to get one out of storage. This day was just the worst. The absolute worst. First, a tiled floor covered in the blood of a winking lord. And now this. What would be next? Would the groundkeepers need help corralling a rabid wolf from the forest? “Grand Wizard, I’m going to have to run back to storage to get—“
“Confound it!” the wizard yelled, slamming a fist down on the edge of the cauldron. “Confound it!”
Lena looked at him, alarmed. “What--?”
“Oh for the love of—I can’t believe I didn’t add--“ the Grand Wizard spluttered, glancing over at a shelf full of ingredients. He looked at Lena. “You. Check that shelf for powdered bladeleaf.”
“Go! Bladeleaf! Now!”
Lena scuttled over to the shelf full of jars of ingredients. Powders, liquids, crystals of every color under the sun. At least they were labeled. “Bladeleaf, bladeleaf,” she muttered as she scanned.
“They’re in alphabetical order!” he yelled, making her jump. “Alphabetical! B!”
Lena grabbed the jar and brought it over.
“Well, open it!” he roared. “Open it!”
Lena did so with shaking hands. Wizards were so scary.
“Take a pinch. Sprinkle it in,” he said, calmer. Maybe he had spotted her shaking hands and didn’t want her dropping his jar.
She did as he said.
He exhaled a calming breath when it was done. They looked down at the cauldron’s contents. Within seconds, the orange glop transformed to brilliant blue.
Figuring she was no longer needed, Lena returned the jar to the shelf. She was about to leave to get a chisel for the exploded stomach, then Beeth said, “Come here,” snapping his fingers. “I need you for something.”
Lena raised an eyebrow at the back of his head, then walked over. Oh no. He wasn’t going to test this potion on her, was he? Did that kind of thing happen? She hadn’t been working at the palace long, so she hadn’t yet heard all the gossip. Did the Grand Wizard do stuff like that to the servants? Was she going to turn invisible? Be transformed into a snail? Die? Lena halted by the cauldron and swallowed heavily, looking down into the blue, bubbling muck. Yuck.
“Stir this,” Beeth said, handing the huge wooden spoon handle over to her.
“Stir. Stir. You know stir?” he asked, irritated, as he pantomimed stirring with one hand even though he was still holding the spoon in the other. “You’re not one of those Torians, are you? Honestly. Foreigners. Learn the language if you’re going to come to our land.”
Jerk. “Uh, no. No. I’m from here. Not a—foreigner.”
“Then you understand. Stir.” He shoved the spoon at her.
She took it and looked down into the glop. She had zero experience with magic. “Um, so I just—stir?”
“Yes. Stir. Stir. Oh. My. Gosh. How hard can this possibly be?”
Lena began to stir.
Lena slowed down.
“Not that slow. It’ll stick to the sides of the cauldron, idiot.”
Lena gritted her teeth and sped up.
The Grand Wizard sighed a martyred sigh. “Oh fine. I suppose that’ll do. Just keep it up like that. I’ll be back. Don’t let it burn. I need to go to the garden to collect some fresh petals of—“ he said, then stopped short and looked at her as though he’d only just remembered who he was talking to. “Never mind.” He curled his lip at her and walked toward the door.
“Oh—but I’m expected in the kitchens for lunch—“ she said as he strode away. “I need to be there—“
He walked out the door.
Fuming, Lena stirred the orange glop as she listened to the wizard’s footsteps receding. Typical. So typical. He’d better get back fast. She had to get to the kitchen on time. The King was giving a speech before the entire city at noon, and all the lords and ladies were in town for it. There was going to be a huge feast afterwards, and all hands were needed on deck. The people in the kitchen needed her. She could not lose her job. And she totally would if she didn’t make it to the kitchen on time.
If she lost this job, it would be a setback for the rebels. She was doing some quality rebel-related work in the palace. Only the day before, she had hidden behind the King’s curtains in his office and overheard him talking about how he was taking tax money slated for spending on education and poorhouses and using it, instead, on a massive redecoration of the entire palace. The King and his advisors had had quite a laugh about how they were pulling the wool over the eyes of the populace, yet again. Also, she had discovered a potential access point for the secret passageway system in the walls. If she could get the rebels information that would enable them to scamper around in the palace walls and eavesdrop through holes cut in portrait eyes, this whole stupid job would be worth it. She could not be dismissed from her job before getting a chance to poke around some more and expose some ugly truths.
The longer she stirred, the angrier she got. By the time she heard footsteps approaching down the hallway, she was so cranky that she actually turned and glared at the Grand Wizard when he walked into the chamber.
Except it wasn’t the Grand Wizard.
It was the Prince.
She gasped, and dropped the spoon into the cauldron as she collapsed into a low bow. As the seconds came and went and the Prince didn’t give her leave to stand, she got more and more tense thinking about the muck behind her that needed such picky stirring. The muck that she’d just dropped the spoon into.
He sauntered over, looked down at her, and said, “Uh, you’re not Virox.”
“No, Your Highness,” she said to his glimmering, black boots.
“You’re a maid.”
“Yes, Your Highness.”
“What are you doing down here all alone?”
“Your Highness, I was here to clean some fermented goat stomach—“
“Eww! Too much information!” he cried. “Answer without any gross words, OK?”
“The Grand Wizard asked me to stir this potion,” she said, pointing over her shoulder in the direction of the cauldron. “He had to go to the gardens to pick some flower petals.”
“Oh! Then why aren’t you stirring it? You mess that thing up, he’s gonna have your—Oh! Right! Duh!” he said, then cleared his throat and said in a regal tone, “You may rise.”
Lena flew to her feet and whirled to look at the contents of the cauldron. “Oh no, oh no, oh no,” she muttered, looking down into the formerly-blue glop. It was now a dark yellow-brown, and wasn’t moving at all. Had it solidified? She reached out gingerly to pinch the tip of the spoon that was poking out from the top of the substance. She pulled. The spoon didn’t budge. It was as though it was imbedded in rock.
The Prince joined her by the cauldron, looked in, and said, “Oh man! You are in so much trouble!” He gave her a playful punch to the shoulder, and chuckled. “It’s not supposed to look like that, is it?”
“No,” she said, monotone, as she rubbed her arm where he’d punched it. “It’s supposed to be blue. Bubbling. Moving.”
“Oh man!” he reiterated, then laughed a bit more, only stopping when Lena walked away from him so that she could begin pacing and muttering under her breath and rubbing her temples with shaking fingers. “Geez, you’re totally freaking out.”
This was not a question, so she did not respond.
“Aw come on, it won’t be so bad. Not like he’s not gonna kill you. You servants are made of some pretty tough stuff. The abuse you can bounce back from is downright impressive. For instance, you would not believe the stories I could tell you about my whipping boy, Sokos—oh man—that kid!” he said, breaking into more laughter and slapping his knee. “That kid!”
Since it felt inappropriate to be pacing around while the Prince was speaking to her, Lena stopped and looked at his boots, trying to maintain a neutral expression as she weathered his horrible pep talk.
“Eh? Eh?” the Prince asked. “Buck up! Right?”
Oh wow. This guy had to be overthrown and put in the stocks in the town center. So badly. If ever someone needed a bunch of rotten produce smeared in his face, it was this guy. “Yes, Your Highness.”
“Right! That’s the spirit, kid!”
Lena balled up her fists and imagined herself tossing a decomposing tomato at his nose. Not as therapeutic as it could be. But it helped.
“OK. Well, let Virox know I stopped by for a truth serum he made me, would you? It’s gotta be around here somewhere. He told me it’d be done last evening. I was going to slip it into Lord Blasly’s drink at the party last night—but I totally forgot to stop by and pick it up.” He laughed some more, and said, “Funny stuff, Eh? Eh? Blasly under the influence of a truth serum?”
“Yes, Your Highness.”
“That’s right!” he said, clapping his hands together. “Well. Uh, chin up! You’ll bounce back from, uh—that—“ he said, pointing at the cauldron. “Catch ya later.” He sauntered out.
She waited until his footsteps had faded, then zoomed into action. A truth serum. A real, honest to goodness truth serum. The Grand Wizard had made a truth serum for the Prince, and it was here for the taking. If only she could find it. After the incident with the cauldron, Lena was already—at the very least—fired, if her superiors got the chance to make it official before she ran. She might as well make the most of a bad situation and do some stealing before she left. A truth serum was something the rebels could definitely use.
Lena looked wildly around the room. How long could it take to find a flower and pick some petals? She needed to work fast. She decided the truth serum probably wasn’t anywhere on his workstation. Even someone as thoughtless as the Grand Wizard would not leave something for the Prince sitting around with fermented goat stomach bits all over it. If it had been at the workstation, he’d have picked it up post-explosion and cleaned it off.
Cleaned it off where? Lena looked frantically about. There, in the far corner, was a table with a pitcher and a basin, and a few upended glass containers drying on a towel. She hurried over and looked around for a something that might be a truth serum. She saw nothing. Though how could she be sure? How would she know it when she saw it? That was the real problem.
Lena walked over to a big bookshelf by the door and scanned the titles. Awesome. A-Z of Potions and Spells. That sounded helpful. She took it out and flipped to the T’s. Tastebud disruptor, Tear duct inhibitor, Tile cleaner (What. The. Hell. Tile cleaner? A spell to clean tile existed and maids didn’t have access to it? Oh man, did this monarchy need to fall). Ah! Truth Serum. OK. She skipped the description, because, to quote the Prince, “Duh,” and went on to the part that told how to make it. At the bottom of the recipe, under a list of things like cabbage hearts and butterfly antennae, were two helpful sentences: A properly prepared truth serum will be the consistency and color of olive oil. A standard vial-full will be more than sufficient for most needs.
Swell. So she probably needed to look for a vial of something that looked like olive oil. Lena took in the room with a sigh. So many tables, so many shelves, so many places for a little vial to hide. OK. Well, it wasn’t at the workstation, and it wasn’t at the cleaning station. She began to search random surfaces of tables.
Footsteps sounded in the hallway. Oh no. She didn’t agree with the Prince—she was pretty sure the Grand Wizard was going to kill her. Her eyes strayed from the door to a small table just to the left of it. There was a wooden box on top of the table with a paper affixed to the side. On the paper was printed: Outgoing potions. Yes!
Lena scampered to the box and looked in. There were a few cloth bags and a few vials. Only one of the vials looked like it contained olive oil.
She grabbed it and backed away from the door and the approaching footsteps.
He was nearly there. She had no time to run to the servants’ door.
So, she dove under the nearest table, held her breath, and hoped for the best.
From her hiding spot, Lena couldn’t see, but she could hear. The Grand Wizard halted in the doorway and muttered something under his breath, then ran across the room, no doubt to look into the cauldron. Next, he let loose an inarticulate howl of rage that echoed around the chamber most impressively. Then, he sprinted from the room.
Lena looked down at the vial clutched in her hand. Tied around its lid was a little piece of paper with directions scrawled on it. Dab a drop on skin of target. Should take effect immediately.
Well. The King was giving a speech today. A speech that was probably starting any minute. A speech where he was going to be talking about his alleged initiatives to improve both education and options for housing the poor. A speech that Lena knew from firsthand eavesdropping was going to be nothing but a pack of lies.
Lena had an idea.
She ran to the kitchens.
Without much trouble, she convinced the busy head chef to let her bring out a fresh pitcher of water for the King. The speech was going to be a long one, and Lena had feigned concern that the King might drink up the whole first pitcher. Within minutes, she found herself standing in the doorway of the palace’s huge central balcony. Straight ahead of her was the King. Straight ahead of him and a two floors down was the square, which was packed with every citizen of the city who was able to attend.
Lena walked slowly forward with the pitcher of water. She felt disconnected from her body.
The King was talking. Lena’s ears were feeling all funny and plugged up, so she couldn’t really hear, but little snippets came though. Phrases like “—education for a new tomorrow—“ and, “—time our most disadvantaged had a fair shake—“ echoed in her skull as she stepped ever closer to the King.
At his right hand was a small table with a pitcher of water and a goblet.
Lena placed the new pitcher of water down by the first one.
She took the vial of truth serum out of her pocket.
She opened it.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a sudden movement. The Grand Wizard was standing among a group of the King’s advisors. He was pointing at her and whispering to a lord wearing an elaborate cape and frilly collar. Behind the Grand Wizard was the Prince, who gave her a grin and a thumbs up, presumably to celebrate that she wasn’t dead.
Lena swallowed heavily and looked from the Prince to the King. She had to do it. Now.
She took one step, and then another, so she was standing uncomfortably close to the King.
Lena reached up and upended the truth serum on the King’s head.
“What the--!” the King gasped, whirling around.
His stunned guards jumped to action. Within seconds, two of them had grabbed her by the arms. Lena didn’t struggle. She was too busy staring at the King, waiting for signs of the truth serum taking effect. Would he freeze and go silent? Would his eyes go blank?
So far, no. The King was spluttering and gaping at her as green oil slid down his face. “What is the meaning of this?” he roared as he wiped the potion out of his eyes with a handkerchief he had grabbed from his pocket.
Lena attempted to hold her head high and throw her shoulders back, but was hindered by the guards’ hold on her. She nodded toward the crowd down in the square, and yelled, “Tell them! Tell them all the truth!”
“What are you talking about, you lunatic?” the King asked, looking wildly around at his advisors, who shrugged confusedly. All except the Grand Wizard, who was eyeing the vial in her hand with dawning comprehension.
She yelled at the top of her lungs so that the whole square could hear, “I’m talking about the truth about where the money is going! The money for the schools and the poorhouses! It’s going to redecorate the palace! Admit it! You have to admit it--I just poured truth serum on you!”
The King looked at her with wide eyes.
She smirked at him, enjoying the shock showing clear on his face. Well now at least whatever happened to her next, she would know she had forced this buffoon to admit one of his lies. “How did you know—“ he hissed at her, but then he shook his head and looked down at the crowd, remembering their presence. “Nonsense!” he yelled. “Pay this lunatic no mind. My subjects, uh, listen to some music for a few moments. I’ll be right with you.” He signaled to the royal trumpeters, who scurried to grab their instruments. The King reiterated through gritted teeth, “What is going on? I have oil on my head!”
As the royal trumpeters got down to business in the background, Lena stared at the King, dumbfounded. Something was very wrong. “But—but—the truth serum…” she whispered.
The King shook his head, and growled, “I can assure you I am not under the influence of any truth serum.” He looked around at his advisors again. “Can anyone explain this?” he hissed.
“I think I can explain,” the Grand Wizard said, swooping forward. “That vial in her hand—she believed it was a truth serum. The girl is a halfwit maid. She was in my chamber earlier today. She must have stolen the vial.” He shot Lena a slimy smile, then said, “What she didn’t know was that the vial held nothing more than olive oil.”
Lena’s jaw dropped. She stared at the Grand Wizard. Oh, no. Oh, no. Not good. She looked wildly around at all the royalty and lords staring at her, then down at the sea of faces upturned to the balcony. No one in the crowd was paying those royal trumpeters any mind. Some of those people down there were her rebel friends. What would they think of her for doing something so stupid? For not talking over her plans with her superiors first? Did they have anyone on the inside who might be able to rescue her from the dungeon she was most certainly going to be visiting shortly? Was she being optimistic assuming a visit to the dungeon?
“What? Olive oil?” the Prince asked, stepping forward. He looked at the Grand Wizard. “Virox? Olive oil? Was that my potion you made me for the party?”
The Grand Wizard scoffed at the Prince, “Like I’d give you a real truth serum, boy--”
The Prince gasped. “Virox! That’s so lame! You totally lied--”
“Quiet!” the King spat, and turned to stare at Lena. He bared his teeth in an ugly, mirthless grin. “If it’s truth serum you want, it’s truth serum you’ll get.”
Lena bit her lip as she took in the King’s flaring nostrils and fiery eyes. Yeah, this was not good. Not good at all.