Still running that Patreon! The Near-Apocalypse of '09 is still more than three months away, but Patreon backers can start reading it today!
I'm taking a break from Felda's story for a while, because I find I keep thinking about Ghost's instead. So I'm taking a crack at writing it. This is set quite a ways to the north of Toftor, in a culture with rather different structures and issues.
Trigger Warning: Child abuse and neglect, internalized racism, body image issues
Caer Wyndle, Pryderys
Twelve years, four months, and seven days until the end.
It wasn't Ghost's fault. Not really.
Sure, she was the immediate cause, but she had no idea what she was doing, and more importantly no way of knowing what she was doing. There had simply never been a chance for her to learn what she needed to know--if there had been, she likely would have learned it gladly.
That's what she was doing in the library, after all; learning. She spent a great deal of time there, there being little else to do. She got yelled at if her parents or Parry caught her doing servant work, and of course she couldn't go outside because someone might see how ugly she was.
Every once in a while Mother would send her maid, Kina--though mother always called her Kiah for some reason--to fetch Ghost. Kina would drag her to the baths to be washed and scrubbed and shoved into a frilly blouse and short pants, and then she would be presented to Mother. That was the only time Ghost was called Emlyn, which was her name in the big red book of family trees on the shelf by the mantle in the library: Emlyn Glenys Dyvis, daughter of Gwenfer Dylan and Caradoc Dyvis (nee Gruffyd). Mother was the only person who called her that, when she called her at all.
Every time started the same: Mother would grunt, say, "You seem in good health, Emlyn," and Ghost would agree. Then Mother would sigh and say, "Really, we must get you a governess or a tutor one of these days. It isn't right, a Dyvis child growing up wild."
Then Mother would brush her hair, or play a game with her, or teach her something, until eventually Ghost did something wrong and the screaming started. She stopped being Emlyn once mother started screaming; she was just that child, as in "Take that child out of my sight!" It was hard to tell what would be wrong, but there was always something.
Once, a few years ago, Mother taught Ghost her letters, and the sounds they made. After that Ghost would practice in the library, sounding out the words one by one. As time went on she got better at it, and learned more words. No one particularly cared if she sat for hours in the library--not like the kitchen, where sooner or later she'd be in someone's way, or the halls and rooms where Mother and Father lived and entertained guests, where Ghost wasn't permitted except when Mother sent for her.
No, in the library she was left in peace, except if Father or Mother or a guest wanted to use it. Then she had to disappear before they entered, so they wouldn't see her. She was very good at leaving a room just before someone else entered, which was why everyone called her Ghost. Well, at least, all the servants called her Ghost, and she herself did too, so that made Ghost her real name, whatever the family record-book might say.
So her education consisted of whatever books she pulled randomly from the library shelves, which meant a great deal of history, mostly in the form of "and then General so-and-so led the charge on Wherever and won the Battle of Thingy," books of advice on business, and literature, mostly in the form of "and then General So-and-So led the charge on Wherever and won the Battle of Thingy, as well as the hand of Princess Whatsername."
There was very little in there about magic, and none at all about the proper order in which things ought to be attempted when learning magic. And she was eleven, that age when such gifts begin to manifest. Not that her gift was that great--middling, really. But it was a Fire rune she looked at in the book, tracing her fingers over it while she read the instructions about focusing on it, letting herself flow into it. And the library was full of wooden shelves stacked with paper books. And they did put the fire out without too much damage. Eventually.
Honestly, she probably could have just faded away, stayed out of sight until the whole thing was forgotten, if not for the fact that she panicked as the first flickers of flame danced across the book, and ran screaming from the library straight into Mother, Father, and the Thain of Caer Wyndle.
On the other hand, six months in a dark cellar did give her both time and motivation to practice the fire rune. She had it quite under control by the time they let her back out.
Eleven years, nine months, and thirteen days until the end
Ghost sat under a table in the kitchen, nibbling at a twirlbread that had been dropped on the floor and trod on. Normally she wouldn't eat food that had had feet in it, since Alamea always made sure that every meal she prepared for Mother and Father had more leftovers than all the servants together could eat, but she very much liked twirlbread, with its cinnamon-sweetness and chopped nuts. Unfortunately she couldn't have the fun of unwinding it into a long thin strip of fluffy baked dough, because it had gotten all smashed, but it was still quite tasty after she scraped off the footprint.
Speaking of her, Alamea walked into the kitchen at just that moment, trailed by the new scullery lad. Ghost didn't know his name yet, since he'd started while she was in the cellar. Ghost quite liked Alamea; she was kind as long as you stayed out of her way and obeyed her iron-fisted rule of the kitchen, and she had a big, round, lilting voice that was somehow exactly right for a woman barely taller than Ghost and seven times wider, with a broad face and thick black calluses on her big, strong hands. The scullery lad was a bit taller and a lot thinner, but his face was close enough that he might be her cousin--and probably was, for all Ghost knew.
Alamea strode over to the bubbling pot of soup, and her apprentice, a shy and anxious girl named Luana, only a few years older than Ghost herself, stepped back. Alamea lifted a ladle and tasted the soup, while Luana clutched her slender hands together and watched in worried silence. "Hrm," said Alamea, and Luana visibly relaxed. That meant, Ghost knew, that the cook had no complaints about Luana's work.
Alamea turned to the counter, inspecting the vegetables and spices Ghost had watched Luana chopping and grinding for the last hour. "Hrm," she said again, and laid a saucepan on the stove next to the soup. Soon she was tossing and flipping vegetables, adding them and the spices to the pan in some arcane order Ghost couldn't figure out.
"Hi, Mele," Luana whispered to the scullery lad. Aha! So that was his name!
"Hi," he said.
"How is, uh, everything?" Luana asked. When he shrugged, she continued on, "Um, if there's anything that you need help with, or want to know... I mean, since I know you're new--I mean, of course you know that you're new, but--"
"Oh, just go fuck already," Alamea interrupted. "After work. Luana, I need you to start cleaning the fish. Mele, run to the pantry and get me more flour and two onions."
Luana blushed like two inkblots spreading across her cheeks, but Ghost caught the hint of a smile on the older girl's face as she turned to her work. Ghost watched in fascination; this was a part of life she'd only seen glimpses of before.
A couple of minutes later Mele returned and laid down the supplies Alamea had requested. "There actually is something I've been wondering," he murmured to Luana. "Who's that little girl I sometimes see? The one with the filthy face and the torn smock? Is she the maid's daughter or something?"
"Little girl?" asked Luana. "Oh, you mean Ghost! No, no, she's their daughter."
"Them?" he asked. "You mean--she's a nob? But then why do they let her just... wander like that? It's not right!"
Ghost perked up, suddenly interested. Wasn't it?
"You've answered your own question, boy," said Alamea. "You said she looked like a servant's girl. Oh, she's got the same lovely dark skin and eyes as her mother, all the Dyvis women do, but she looks more than half Keo, doesn't she?"
Ghost stifled a sigh, since that was likely to get her noticed and probably walloped for eavesdropping. That was always what it came down to, her ugliness. Fat and short and toadlike, flat nose in a broad face, and a tangle of curls that grew denser and bigger rather than longer--not like Mother's hair that hung down shining and dark and straight, tall, slender, long-limbed, beautiful Mother, or the tall, slender, long-limbed, straight-haired, beautiful ladies that sometimes visited her.
"Hard to believe she's their child," Mele agreed.
"Exactly," said Luana, voice dropping to an excited whisper. "Rumor is, His Lordship thinks she's not. He thinks Her Ladyship had a Keo lover and forgot to take her draft."
"Rumor," said Alamea, disgusted.
"Well, that's what Kina told me!" Luana protested.
"Yes, and she told me Her Ladyship thinks the child's a throwback, that the Gruffyds aren't quite as pure Tarnic as their family tree says," Alamea countered. "She repeats everything she hears, that girl." Alamea passed the vegetables in their pan to Luana and took the cleaned, boned fish from her.
"Well, if either one is true, why do they stay together?" asked Mele.
"Here, make yourself useful, boy, and peel this garlic." Alamea cracked a couple of eggs in a bowl and whipped them swiftly, then poured out the flour onto the counter. Soon she was at work coating the fish in first egg, then flour. "Because the Gruffyds might be rich and Tarnic, but they're as common as we are," she said. "And Lady Gwenfer might be a lady, but this manor was half in ruins and all her old father had left before young Mr. Gruffyd, as he was then, proposed. They may hate each other, and they do, almost as much as they hate her, poor little thing! But they need each other, Ghost or no."
Ghost clutched her scabby knees to her chest, hardly daring to breathe for fear they might catch her. She'd never heard anything like this before. Mother and Father hated each other? Hated her? She rolled the word around in her head. Yes. Yes, that was the right word. They hated her. And, she was vaguely surprised to notice, she hated them.
The next day she snuck out of the house for the first time.