Hi Rebecca, if you got so far as to be reading this, thanks for the chance to apply. My piece below is from my WiP Consort of Whispers.
Yolena M’attih sucked in a breath of hot, stale air. Inside the cabin was stuffy, stifling, pressing in on her. She gritted her teeth and forced the stiff window to open one, two centimetres, where it stopped, stubbornly jammed in the warped sill. She pressed her face to the opening. The breeze caressed her skin, drying her sweat and allowing her to breathe.
The sky was striking blue, and the water a moody grey. The ship rose and fell with an even rhythm, cresting the water before plunging downward. She watched for a while, mesmerised inhaling the scent of salt water and sea air. The fresh smell soothed her senses, gave her mind the balance it needed for the rest of the voyage.
She turned from the window, lay on her narrow bed and looked up at the ceiling. Made of wooden slats, she already knew all of the knots and flaws well. She had counted and memorised them all. She did so again, the activity further relaxing her mind.
A shout from somewhere else on the ship startled her, making her tense and drew her eyes back to the window. A bird wheeled past, little more than a dark shape, wings outstretched. It let out a squawk.
Yolena’s heart leapt and she jumped with it.
Birds mean land.
There on the horizon, like a purpling bruise, land rose from the ocean. Yolena shivered, trepidation replacing any semblance of relaxation she’d achieved. She closed her eyes and sucked in the scent of the sea again. Calm washed over her, only spoiled by her racing pulse.
She opened her eyes again, accepting that for the moment this was the best she could do to still her thoughts. Already, she made out the shapes of buildings; some square and flat, others domed. Several spires rose into the air. The city displayed a hodgepodge of designs. Her mother would have found irritating. Yolena found it fascinating, and terrifying.
Vardina. Even the name was exotic. Capital of Vardin, the western region of Vardindaar. Daar, she knew from books and maps, lay to the east, over deserts. She wanted to stare, to see the city draw closer.
I have to be ready.
She hurried over to a chest which took up a good portion of the cabin and pulled out a dress. The light, creamy cotton threatened to stick to her skin, but she tugged it down into place and ran her hands down the front. The creases in the fabric made her frown. She needed to make a better impression than to appear in a crumpled dress.
She glanced at the door. Even knowing it was locked, she moved carefully. From her chest she drew out a bag. She reached inside and drew out a small pouch, one of several the bag contained. She lifted the pouch to her nose and breathed in the smell of cinnamon and nutmeg. A delightful scent, and one with a small amount of potency. It should be just enough.
She touched the front of her dress and focused. A trickle of power passed through her and into the cotton. It pressed the fibres, drawing them out, strand by strand until they lay flat. She did the same with the rest of the dress, until every centimetre was just how she wanted. Not a crease remained.
She sighed at the need to use magic for something so mundane, but her future may depend on it. She returned the pouch to the bag and tucked that back into the chest. A moment later, she heard a heard a polite tap on the door. She used the drop of magic she had left to calm herself, then moved the three or four steps over to the door, unlocked it and opened it.
“Lyli, there . . .Oh.” She had been expecting her maid, but this was certainly not her. Standing at least a head taller than Yolena, Rahin was also twice as wide. Every inch of him looked like muscle carved out of rock. Even his face looked made of stone, all hard angled and chiseled lines. His dark hair was cut close to his scalp, revealing a scar on the side of his head.
His lips were set in their usual line, neither a scowl nor a smile. Yolena wondered if he ever did either. She licked her lips. “I thought you were my maid,” she said, lifting her chin. A soft breath in brought the smell of sandalwood and spices, the combination which was unique to him. She let her breath out, but a tingle of magic tickled at her skin.
“My apologies princess.” His deep voice contained as little emotion as his face. “Where is she?”
“She was feeling unwell,” Yolena replied, “she said she was going to lie down up on deck. Sea travel evidently doesn’t agree with her.”
He gave a sceptical look, which she met evenly. It was his job to protect her, not question her, but his loyalty was to Vardin, not her.
He turned to the guard behind him. “Go and find her,” he ordered. He turned back to Yolena. “We’re arriving in Vardin. I though it best to inform you, so you can be ready.” His eyes took in her neat dress and he frowned slightly.
“Yes,” she replied. “I mean, that’s thoughtful of you.” Apparently he’d expected to catch her off guard. He might have had he come a few minutes earlier. “Thank you.”
He inclined his head and backed out the doorway. “I will return to escort you ashore, my lady.”
“Thank you Rahin.” He looked surprised she knew his name. She had taken the time to learn it on the way from her father’s palace in Rudin to the ship. That and the names of all the guards. That was a lesson she had learnt from her mother. Always know the people around you, especially the ones whose presence you didn’t choose. Showing an interest in them might ensure their loyalty, and that could be the difference between living and dying.
She watched him for a moment as he walked away down the short corridor toward the stairs which led to the deck. His scent left with him, leaving behind the stale cabin smell she’d grown to dislike. It suppressed her senses and made her stomach heavy.
She gave herself a shake and closed the door. Before Lyli returned, she pulled a leather bound book out from under the mattress and tucked it into the bottom of her chest. The notes and observations she wrote in there were for only her eyes. She put no secrets in there which might be a danger to her home country of Ta’rud, but she made frequent mention of her dreams, which had often featured Rahin, amongst others.
From beside her pillow, she pulled a slim wooden box, carved with the emblem of the Crown of Ta’rud surrounded by tiny leaves and vines. The reason for her journey lay inside. She didn’t need to open it, the image of the tightly wound scroll and green wax seal was seared into her memory, along with her father’s hand placing it inside.
“Guard this with your life,” he’d said, his voice rough. He barely spared her a glance, but he gave the scroll a reverent pat. “This treaty is everything.”
The door rattled, returning Yolena to the present. Lyli stepped inside, her face looking flushed, hair pulled free from her neat plait.
She gave a curtsey. “I’m sorry my lady.”
“Who were you with?” Yolena asked bluntly.
Lyli’s flushed face turned a brighter read. “Arad, my lady,” she whispered. Her voice shook.
Yolena nodded. “I see.” She wasn’t angry at her. Envious perhaps, but she had more on her mind than physical pursuits. “I trust you’re feeling better then?”
She swallowed. “Yes my lady. I am sorry, I—” She looked as though she was convinced Yolena would have her thrown overboard.
Yolena held up a hand. “It doesn’t matter now. Brush your hair and let’s finish packing.”
“Yes my lady.” Lyli went in search of her own small bag and the hairbrush within it.
Yolena moved back to the window,. The city was closer now, as were other ships moored in the wide bay. “What do you think of going to Vardina?” she asked absently, glancing over her shoulder at the other woman.
Lyli looked startled. “I do as I’m told, my lady.”
Yolena gave a soft laugh, an edge of bitterness to the sound. “Don’t worry, I’m not going to have you tossed overboard to feed the sea serpents if you say you’re not happy about it. No one asks what servants want.”
“No one asks what princesses want either,” she replied.
“No, they don’t,” Yolena agreed, “but someone had to accompany the treaty.” And I’m disposable. As the youngest of five daughters, no one was lining up for her hand. Her father remarked that she would have been more useful if she were a boy, and cursed Battih that she wasn’t. Since her brothers seemed only good for drinking and fighting amongst themselves, she had never quite understood his point.
“I was asking about you,” she said. “You had no family to leave behind. What about friends? Lovers?”
“Not really.” Lyli tugged the brush though her own hair. “Not anyone I miss.”
“Has Arad made you any promises?”
“No, my lady.”
“I’ll be sure he does if his seed takes inside you,” Yolena assured her. She would not let any man mess around with her maid and not take responsibility.
“Thank you, my lady.” Done with her hair, Lyli pulled out a series of small pots and brushes and began to apply coloured powers to Yolena’s cheeks and eyelids. She didn’t much care for makeup, but today of all days, she might need it. She closed her eyes and let Lyli work on her face. The woman had knack for it which Yolena was unlikely to ever possess. She worked in silence, dabbing here, brushing there, jasmine-scented hands deft and quick.
Yolena opened her eyes as Lyli held up a small hand mirror. Soft powders accentuated blue eyes, high cheekbones and pale skin, which contrasted with red hair. She had spent a lifetime being asked if she had a temper to match.
The deck under her feet jolted and Lyli grabbed her arm to keep her from falling.