Nickolas was woken at dawn by the screaming of birds above his head. At some point, an entire flock of starlings had settled in the eaves of the stable roof and they had apparently taken it upon themselves to awake him early, and to leave him with long hours of preparation for this vital morning.
There was something truly primordial about how animals would greet the rising sun by crying into the changing night. It was also bloody annoying, and he knew he could not get back to sleep that morning. He pulled himself from the warmth of his cot slowly, brushing away the mess of straw and dirt and dust that had settled on his body in the night. He shook his head groggily; being awake while the sun was high in the sky drained the energy from his body and generally left him feeling nauseated. Maybe, like looking upon the crucifix, it was simply a matter of building up a tolerance, and ignoring how you really felt. He didn’t particularly like the sound of it, but he supposed that it was necessary to participate in society and to be treated as a man, not a beast.
He had hours before he was needed in the house so – no, he presumed that he had hours. He hadn’t actually been told anything substantial. Until a servant was told to drag him bodily into the house, Nickolas supposed he had the freedom to go wherever he wished. He could flee, if he so chose. Another test of character from the Cardinal, he supposed, before immediately chastising himself for this instantaneous paranoia. It was the lack of fresh blood. He had felt it before, when he had been forced to starve. Your mind began to wonder and imagine that horrors lay behind every corner, just waiting to sweep you up and tear into your bones.
Although it had happened last night. He had been suddenly grabbed and abducted. This was not a helpful event to have happened, certainly if he wanted to avoid the fluttering feelings of jumpiness and anxiety that crawled over his skin. That might also have been the lice that had jumped onto his body in the night. The stupid insects had been attracted by the warmth of the bed, and now swarmed over his skin. They couldn’t break through his skin, but they circled and circled, trying and trying until they would inevitably fall away and die.
He ventured into the stinging sunlight and stripped away his stinking clothes. He washed in the horse trough, and was only mildly bothered by the attentions of a chestnut filly. She was apparently wandering freely, and caught Nickolas by surprise. He’d thrust his head under the water, rubbed away the mud and the dried blood, and as he’d stood up, something soft, damp, and slightly grassy had been thrust into his ear. It had sniffed him intensely, before whinnying loudly at him. He’d never really had that much experience with horses, other than knowing rather generally that they hated the smell of creatures like him. This one was used to ones such as him, and seemed to expect a surfeit of attention from him. The filly whinnied again, before turning around and running away, as if desperate for his attention.
“You’re the man His Eminence found, right?” Nickolas turned to find a short, red faced woman addressing him. She was a servant, he could tell from the plainness of her cap and the rough quality of her gown, but she carried herself with a bearing that implied she was used to command. Head of house, no doubt, when the Cardinal was away. She marched up to him, a bundle held in her muscled arms. “I’m Madame Crina. Change into these clothes, and I shall take you to His Eminence’s privy chamber.” She sniffed, looking him up and down, obviously unimpressed with what she saw. “It’s not fitting to have some kind of wild man running around the place.”
Nickolas had changed quickly. Madame Crina had stood by him, picking up each discarded item of clothing as he threw it upon the ground. She’d picked them up between thumb and forefinger, holding them away from her body with as much distance as her arms could manage.
“I shall have these burnt.” She’d muttered, turning her head away and wrinkling her nose delicately. “Were you aware of how much you stunk? Well, at least you’ve had somewhat of a wash. The mistress has a disgust for foul odours, and she would never allow a thing such as you inside the main body of the house.”
“I was in there last night. The Cardinal brought me inside – “
“Oh, of course he would,” Madame Crina said, distaste dripping from every syllable. She may be employed by the Cardinal, but that didn’t mean she had to respect his choices. “He always liked… oddities.”
Nickolas thought that had to be an insult, even if he couldn’t tell exactly who it was aimed at. He decided to ignore it and nod amiably.
Madame Crina had fussed over him for a while, pulling at his shirt and breeches, moving the jacket until it lay straight across his shoulders, and adjusting his hair. She tugged and pinched at him until she decided that he was good enough to suit her tastes. She gave a cluck with her tongue that seemed to indicate that he was appropriate to meet her mistress.
“Is there anything I should know? How should I conduct myself in her presence?” Nickolas asked, as he dutifully followed Madame Crina inside the chateau, pausing at the immense fireplace in the kitchen to suitably destroy his old attire, to be lead up the oak staircase and round and round the identical corridors.
“Have you never been around women of substance?” Madame Crina clucked again. “Don’t you look into her face, don’t you talk to her without her permission, and don’t you go near her. You keep a respectful distance, you hear? Otherwise I can’t be held accountable for what happens when her moods strike her.”
Nickolas hadn’t quite known how to respond to that, so had remained quiet.
They had stopped before a large pair of mahogany doors, carved with images of frolicking nymphs with glittering, jewelled eyes. Madame Crina knocked smartly upon it, waited for an answer, then motioned to Nickolas.
“You may go in now.”
Nickolas brushed back his hair nervously, patting into what he hoped was a flat enough shape, and entered the room.