The Dirty Mirror (aka Shay)
I was born a whore’s bastard. My mother was a simple woman, plain-faced and big-busted. In a dark room, she was any man’s fantasy. That night, she had been Rygan Daliel’s. A Lordling at the time, he’d come to the tavern seeking attentions that his lady wife had been withholding. According to rumor, their house’s Mage had told the Lady Mayene that she was pregnant, and warned her to keep from bed-activities until the child had settled. The same rumors said that the Mage’s advice was nothing more than revenge on Rygan, who’d had him whipped for bedding the kitchen maid.
In the end, the Mage had been right. The Lady Mayene birthed a healthy girl that Spring, only a month before my mother whelped me. But for our similar beginnings, we couldn’t have been farther apart. The Daliel Estate was among the largest in Khen, and Rygan had had the finest midwives brought after his mishap with the Mage. My mother, on the other hand, bore me half-drunk in an alley. Daliel was given two daughters that year. One was called Aurinelle, and the other Bastard.
My mother called me Shay, but the name couldn’t be formalized without my father’s consent. I was just another Lordling’s bastard, one of the dozens that ran the lower-city streets; bare-footed mirrors of their royal siblings.
Daliel had refused to claim me in the beginning. My mother was a whore, and had no proof of my paternity. As the years passed, however, and I grew Aurinelle’s face, he had little choice. I can still remember my mother’s half-drunk words, her hands rough as she pulled the tangles from my hair.
“Ye be rich blood, Shay. Ye da have to pay now, don’t he?”
She spent hours cleaning me that first time. I may have had Aurinelle’s face, but it was hidden under a lifetime of filth. She’d found my dress in the thrift shop behind the tavern. It stunk of fire, but bits of pink lace still hung to the hems. She’d said it was perfect.
I was five then, and furious at the scrubbing. Cleanliness was for people rich enough for warm water. Mama’s water hadn’t been warm, and I doubt that it was clean. I was too young to know or care at the time, but I suspect she’d snatched a used tub from one of the rooms above the tavern.
She strutted me through the town that day like a caged canary. The pink dress was a size too small, and I imagine I looked more like a primped boy than a Lord’s daughter, but as far as Ma was concerned, I was her ticket to wealth.
We were stopped before we reached Daliel’s front entrance. Apparently, word of Ma’s display around the town had gotten back to the estate. My Lord father came to meet us himself, hooded and furious as he ushered us into a side alley a block from his estate.
I don’t remember the conversation that took place, but I was vaguely aware that we didn’t go hungry much after that. Ma stopped bringing men into our bed, and she even bought me a sweet on the way home. Life was good.
Unfortunately, such naivety fled with youth. The years passed in a filthy blur of picking purses and tormenting street dogs. By thirteen, I’d won dominance over the younger bastards. We moved in packs, raiding pastry booths and mobbing the occasional noble that stumbled out of the tavern.
I met Kovin on the street. He was a year older, and two heads taller. He didn’t talk much of family, but by the look of him, he was a noble bastard. The other boys were unclaimed, but most belonged to the poor shop-keeps and stable-hands that roamed the lower city.
Over the years, the packs dispersed as the boys became men and left the streets. Many went to their fathers’ shops and farms, working as free labor for the privilege of a hay bed and two meals a day. Kovin alone remained.
I hadn’t thought much of the lanky youth when we’d shared a pack. He had spent much of his time brooding, and only watched when the rest of us fought for our share. Infuriatingly, he always ended up with the most; each of the boys offering a small portion of their bread or pastry.
It wasn’t until years later that I realized he may’ve had the right of it. For lack of a better option, we became companions.
Once I left the proverbial teat, my mother washed her hands of me. Daliel’s coin came in a slow but steady flow, whether I was there or not. By my fifteenth year, I rarely slept under her roof. For reasons unknown to me, she’d started taking men in again, and my presence in the small room only complicated matters. I spent summer nights under the stars, searching with Kovin for a hidden patch of field or pasture. In the winter, we had the choice of returning to our homes or freezing to death.
In the end, it was his home that we chose. After a night under the thatched roof, I understood why he didn’t speak of his family. He had fourteen siblings by his father, and whatever mother he’d had had been replaced by a sharp-tongued and quick-handed shrew of a woman. Judging by his treatment in the household, he belonged to neither parent.
We spent those nights in silence, tucked into corners or hiding in the tiny barn out back. No one questioned my presence; among fifteen children, one more dark-haired brat was hard to notice.
I’d spent countless nights watching my mother rut with strange men. The activity had grown tedious, and I’d hated the noises they’d make when I was trying to sleep. When I’d asked my mother why she did it, she’d told me that the men liked it, and paid her money to let them touch her, and for her to touch them.
It had seemed natural to me. When my breasts began to show under my rough tunic, and I grew hair where my mother’s was, I’d thought myself a woman. And, as far as I could tell, Kovin was a man. I learned differently that night.
Ma had done it a thousand times, and I’d seen it often enough to try it on my own. I cleaned myself longer than usual that night, and brushed my hair back before meeting Kovin in the barn. He was already asleep when I stepped in, so I stripped in the dark. I remember climbing atop him, like my mother had, and leaning forward to touch his lips.
His eyes had opened then, and he’d frowned at me. “What are you doing?” He’d sounded disgusted. When I’d explained, he threw me off him. He didn’t speak of it in the morning, and I didn’t ask questions when I saw him later that day pinned to the wall by his father.
Kovin ran away that next day. He was fourteen, nearly a man grown, and he’d often told me that he was tired of his “pa’s pighouse.” I’d poked around the crowded shack for days, watching Kovin’s father limp and complain of what he called a “bloody piss infection.” When word finally came, I was the first to intercept the scrawny messenger.
“You Kovin’s brother?” he’d asked me, squinting up at my dark hair and pale skin. I looked more like Kovin than the blonde brood that clustered behind me.
“Yeh. Where is he?”
“He be joined to the Guard now, ser. They be trainin’ him at the Castle. He told me ta be givin’ this to Shay.” He squinted down at the dirty pouch in his hand, then looked back at me. “You Shay?”
The pouch had contained four gold pieces and a rusted signet ring. The embossed falcon belonged to the Verring family; distant but persistent relatives of the crown. I’d been wise enough to open the pouch away from both Kovin’s family and my mother’s prying eyes. I buried the coins under the sole oak at the edge of the apple orchard, and wore the dingy ring on a bit of cord around my neck.
I didn’t chase after Kovin. Even if I’d gotten to the castle, I didn’t have the size or strength to be in the Guard. I’d really lost him, and all over a stupid thing like rutting.
The years after Kovin left were hard. My mother took ill during that first winter, and my father’s coin had slowed to a stop with her ceased badgering. Before the winter was up, I’d spent the first of Kovin’s gold on firewood and food. The merchant had given me an odd look when I’d handed over the piece, but the coin proved true.
We survived the winter, and the one after that, on the Gods’ good graces and Kovin’s generosity. Ma’s mind had gone before she had time to wonder where I was getting the coin for food and clothing. It didn’t matter, in the end. When she died, I was as poor as she had been, except for the ring around my neck.
Had the signet been my father’s, my task might have been easier. As it wasn’t, my sole hope was the rumor that I had my sister’s face. Aurinelle, well-bred and beautiful, had been shipped off to the castle nearly a year before, sent with the family’s finest jewels and clothing. Daliel was hoping to lure a rich groom to his doorstep.
What he got was a half-starved bastard. I’d done my best to clean myself, as my mother had done so many years before, and I’d worn my best set of clothing. I hadn’t owned a dress since the pink lace, and my mother’s clothing was all too full in the chest to stay up.
When I arrived on the doorstep, the attending servant attempted to shoo away the ‘dirty lad’ from inside the safety of the estate. When I’d stubbornly refused to move, the door had been opened, and my fate was sealed.
I was washed and clothed before I was allowed to see my father. The first attempt had been to fit me into one of Aurinelle’s dresses, but our different upbringings had left her fuller in the chest and hips, and me with more muscle than the dainty sleeves could handle. The harried servants finally settled on a cotton frock, looking like a heinous mix between servant’s wear and a mourning dress. They explained it away on my mother’s death.
My father’s reaction had been stoic. Spitting like a wet cat, I’d been shoved into his study without the chance to crawl back into my breeches and tunic. I was left there, damp and unbearably clean, to withstand his black-eyed inspection. I had those same eyes, and a quick glance proved that I had his hair as well. My skin was lighter, but the resemblance was unmistakable.
“My name’s Shay,” I’d muttered, tugging the frock out of place and stepping away from the door. Awkwardly, I’d spun in a circle, allowing him to see the full of me.
“Is it,” he’d murmured, his voice too low to betray emotion.
“Yeh. Least, that’s what Ma called me. She told me that I don’t got a real name ‘til you give me one. If it wouldn’t be too much troublin’, I’d like it ta be Shay.”
My short speech had drawn the first reaction from his swarthy mask. A wince. “I can hear her in you,” he’d admitted. It hadn’t been a compliment. “Call yourself what you’d like, child. The time’s past for me to name you.”
I’d sighed at that, and my scowl had him wincing again.
“You do look like her. My Aurinelle.” The words had been wistful, and I’d hated him for it.
“It ain’t my fault,” I’d snapped, pressing my back to the door once more. I was beginning to wonder if starvation hadn’t been the better option.
“What do you want from me, Shay?”
I remember wondering if he’d asked my mother that very question. ‘What do you want from me, Cora?’ What had she answered? A few coins to feed his child? Maybe she’d asked for more, and he’d refused. Staring at my father’s face, catching the fear in his eyes, I grew bold.
“I want to join the Guard.”
The castle Guard was made up of Nobles’ fourth sons, distant cousins, and unshakable bastards. Unsurprisingly, I found myself classified among the last. Women were uncommon on the Guard, but as my father had apparently convinced the Captain, I wasn’t a proper woman. Whether the Captain had agreed or not, Daliel had the political weight to force his decision. Likely as not, he didn’t expect me to survive the fortnight.
The castle was no stranger to foreign attacks or peasant skirmishes, and the Guard was the first line of defense. A strange assortment of about a hundred men and a dozen women, it was also a notorious effort at ridding noble families of unwanted or troublesome heirs. My request to join must’ve seemed a great convenience to Daliel; female bastards were less dangerous in matters of inheritance, but harder to kill off than the males. I’d made it easy for him.
(To be continued...)