The Price of Virtue & Honour
I wake, and bathe, and put on my dress. Then I sit and wait in my chamber as I have been told to do. But the waiting tires me and soon I realise there is a dull pain in my stomach. So I rise to call a maid.
That’s when they arrive – the tall men with the tall hats and long jackets with tails that reach down to their knees. There are two of them, one young, one old. They scare me, but I do not show my fear. Fear is a weak, womanly vice and I have been taught not to give into vices for I am virtuous.
The tall men escort me from my chambers, down through the echoing stone halls and stairways of the ancient house, to the waiting carriage. It is a nice carriage; black with silver trim, pulled by dark stallions with feathered head-dresses that whiney and neigh in protest against the chill morning air.
As I descend the entrance steps, I look out across the gardens and see the thin veil of dawn mist beginning to rise, leaving tiny droplets of dew hanging from the foxglove bells in its wake, like tears. The sight makes me shiver and I pull my silken shawl tight around my shoulders. I will be warm soon.
As I approach the carriage, the older of the men unties the rope securing the horses to the balustrade next to the stairs and climbs up into the driver’s seat. The younger man opens the door and helps me ascend the narrow step into the warm interior of the cab before following me inside. He locks the door and takes a seat opposite me. We do not speak.
I am nervous as the carriage starts to move and my breath comes in fits and starts, fogging the air intermittently. The man sits silent and watches me, his face impassive as stone. Though I cannot see his eyes beneath the brim of his hat I can feel them on my skin and my breath quickens involuntarily.
After a short while his gaze begins to disturb me. No man has ever looked at me in such a way before. In truth, no man has ever looked at me. The cab suddenly feels smaller and I close my eyes to focus, desperately trying to quell my rising anxiety. I try to distract myself by studying my hands. I note the short lines that lace across my palms and I count the points at which they intersect, watching how they change as I manipulate my fingers. But I can still feel him watching me and my anxiety refuses to subside.
Eventually, despite the cold, I begin to fan myself with my hand, and that’s when I hear the crowds cheering; my simple gesture mistaken for a wave. Surprised, I realise that we have reached the town already. The journey has been much shorter than in my dreams of this moment.
I look out at the townsfolk lining the road and reality diverges yet further from my imaginings. They look wretched and drawn – drained of their colour. Haggard husks clad in drab garments and heavy shawls. Yet they seethe with a fraught energy the like of which I have never seen before. I feel another pang in my stomach, but I swallow and block it out. Our journey is almost done.
We progress slowly down the rest of the main street, flanked the entire way by men, women, and children, all straining to touch the cab. Finally, we pull into the town square and the driver reins the horses to a standstill. The tall man unlocks the door and raises a hand as he descends to ward off the surge of the assembled throng. He then offers me his other hand to help me down and I emerge into the sweat and stench of the massed bodies clamouring to catch a glimpse of me in my finery. I am humbled by their devotion.
We push forward. Hands grope and grasp from the crowd desperately trying to reach me, but my escort deftly fends of such gestures and I reach the scaffold unmolested.
Once I am in position, an official in carmine robes says a few words that rouse further cheers from the assembled townsfolk. I smile with beatific grace as they raise their sigils to the Mother in thanks and I understand, in that moment, this is my purpose. This is my part to play and I will not fail these people – my people. Though some small part of my soul yearns to run and be free, their faith must be rewarded.
Now, the warmth is rising around me. It flits between my skirts and dances up my sleeves and hair caressing my neck with cinder kisses. Briefly, my stomach aches again. Oh, how it aches. But I do not complain. No. I do not complain.