The Violet Court
Fresh blood trickled from beneath the iron anklet, trailing stark white over the kitchen floor as Kessia sprinted to the oven, sliding in the tarts right before Evyn closed it. The frail woman, distinguishable from every other frail woman hustling about in the kitchen only by the large birthmark above her upper lip, glanced over Kessia with a scowl, the birthmark crinkling in distaste. Kessia responded with a sheepish grin before staining another trail of liquid ivory back towards the wooden table where dough waited to be rolled.
The table had a perfect view of the kitchen’s only window, and Guina stood beside Kessia’s vacated spot, staring impatiently out of it. Kessia knew what she was hoping to see—the same thing every girl in this kitchen hoped to see whenever they announced that Princess Ilona was overdue for a visit.
“He’s not coming,” Kessia said as she brushed up to Guina and began kneeding the dough.
“Hmm?” Guina said, absentmindedly, her gaze never leaving the window.
Kessia sighed. “You’re just as hopeless as the rest of them. You may be Red, Gee, but Prince Ry only goes for Violets.”
Guina finally turned to her and blinked. “Prince Ry?”
She cocked her head, studying her friend. “Is that not who you’re looking for?”
Guina blinked again and then her cheeks flushed with the red color of her blood. “Right. Is it that obvious?”
Kessia narrowed her eyes, sensing something was off, but shook the thought away. "You should focus, Gee. If Evyn catches you distracted, your ankle may very well fall off."
Guina cracked a grin. "The broad loves me."
"Tell that to your mangled leg," Kessia said, gesturing towards the floor where Guina's foot was coated in shades of crimson and brown, the engraved iron anklet that mirrored her own digging into her lower calf and rubbing it raw with every tightening, every punishment for crimes Guina hadn't even known she'd committed.
Kessia's own anklet was tighter than comfortable, but she'd been here six years compared to Guina's seven months. It was a stay only Evyn herself had beat by 20 years, her loose anklet never running the risk of drawing the white blood every other girl here had but Guina. The blood that marked them as different, as lesser, as worthless.
It was a life Kessia had been born into, but one that Guina had been shoved into. Only young, pretty Red outlaws were given second chances. The rest were offered death. It was a fate Whites did not have the privilege of choosing.
“Roll that harder, why don’t you?” Guina said, staring at the abused dough in Kessia’s hands.
Instantly, she let her hands fall slack, dropping the dough back onto the flour-coated table. “Sorry, I—”
Guina’s blue eyes went wide as she stared behind Kessia. Kessia turned, along with every other girl in the kitchen, and watched as a carriage wobbled down the cobblestone path to the Duke’s palace. It was Princess Ilona’s carriage, as white as her hair was dark, the royal Du Vonch crest sown bright and violet onto its side. It slowed as it approached the house, the wooden wheels halting to a stop. A coachman approached to open the door, but it swung open before he could reach it and smacked him upside the head. At the sight of Ilona’s grin when she stepped out, it was clear she’d done it on purpose.
The Princess’s beauty was as legendary as her cruelty. With long legs and the thin, glowing limbs of wealth, she fit flawlessly into her formfitting gowns. Her onyx hair fell in waves over her shoulder, pale except for the undertone of violet that covered her entire body and designated her as royalty, a Violet, not to be trifled with. The beauty was a gift her youngest brother shared, and the cruelty a challenge he did everything to try to exceed. Not that that mattered of course, not to these kitchen girls who saw Prince Ry as an angel, no matter how much his family told them they were worthless.
When the carraige door shut behind the Princess without another dark-haired figure stepping out, a collective sigh overcame the group and they returned to their tasks. All but Guina, who was still staring out the window at the Princess, now curled into the arms of her favorite cousin, the Duke of Ellworn’s son, Luc.
Understanding fell over Kessia. “Oh, Gee. It’s Ilona, isn’t it? Not the prince, but the princess. She’s less picky than the prince, but—”
“What?” Guina asked, turning away. “What—Oh. Oh no.” Guina laughed. “I have no interest in anyone who had a hand in arresting me and trapping me here.”
Kessia frowned. “So what—”
“Finish what you’re doing,” Evyn called. “Stick whatever you’ve got in the oven, and change into fresh clothing. Master Luc is expecting us out there in five minutes. Be late and I’ll tighten up all of you.”
A girl whimpered. She couldn’t have been more than fourteen, and Kessia knew her only as Tears, because she hadn’t had time to figure out her name in the two weeks since she’d been at Ellworn.
Kessia rolled up the last of her dough and shoved it into the oven. She followed the rest of the girls up the stairs, watching as many of them limped, trying to feel the pain she’d once felt back when she was new. Back before she learned feeling anything at all was the best punishment they could inflict. She felt almost guilty that she’d outgrown the pain, as if maybe sharing it with the rest of these girls could make them hurt any less.
When they arrived in the servant’s quarters, Kessia headed to her bed, a bunk she shared with a cleaning slave named Deslen. The girl wasn’t there, and Kessia reached beneath her bottom bunk and pulled out the bag with all of her belongings. The only ones she’d ever had in the lifetime before she’d come to Ellworn. It wasn't much, a few trinkets from her grandparents of sentimental value, the clothes she'd had on her back on the trip here, and the journals her mother had left her as a parting gift the day she was born. The truth about who she was and why she had left.
The only thing she’d added to the bag since was the clean cut uniform the Duke made them all wear whenever there were visitors. Only this was she allowed to wash. Only this didn’t reek of sweat and grime and white useless blood.
She chucked her shirt over her head, hoping no residual flour fell onto her hair and coated its murky brown a sporadic white. She stepped into the dress uniform—long sleeves that covered deteriorating frail arms, tight waist to accentuate sexuality, a skirt that stopped just above the iron anklet because nobody could ever forget that even though Whites looked human, they would always just be slaves.
“Need any help with that?” a deep voice, riddled with weight that made it seem far deeper, said from behind her. It was so close she could almost feel its breath on her neck. She wanted to drown in the depths of that voice. Dropping her hands from the zipper, Kessia turned towards Neels and her heart sank with dread.
He looked good. Proper. A form fitting suit, tailored especially to him because bedroom slaves were prized more than anything for their bodies, his usual careless blonde hair styled back, his blue eyes crinkling as he attempted a smile. It fell before it could even begin.
“No,” Kessia said. “No. Tell me you’re not going out there. He’s not going to make you—”
“Relax, Kes,” he said. The fake smile found itself onto his face this time, but whatever comfort it was supposed to provide, it did exactly the opposite. “Luc just wants to introduce me to her.”
Kessia felt her breath hitch in her throat. “You mean he wants to sell you to her.”
He seemed like he wanted to deny it, but then sighed, nodding. “I think so.”
“And you’re just going to let him?”
“If I could do something to stop him, don’t you think I would have by now?” A sea of memories flashed across his eyes, and then rage took over. “At least it’s a girl this time.”
“It’s Princess Ilona. She’ll cut off all your fingers joint by joint just because it pleases her to hear you scream.” Kessia bit her lip. “You’re leaving then. I won’t… I won’t ever see you again.”
Neels squeezed her hand. “We will. We’ll head to Moresh once we work off our debts—”
“You mean the life debt my mother abandoned me with? Sounds like a plan.”
“Kessia,” Guina called, scowling at Neels when she saw them together. “We have to be downstairs two minutes ago.”
“Shit,” she said, staring at the ticking clock on the wall above the stairs. She glanced back at Neels. “Don’t leave. Don’t go without saying goodbye.”
He gave her a sad smile. “I’ll do my best.”
“You’re leaving?” a quiet, mousy voice echoed as Kessia began down the stairs.
“Ailsa…” she heard Neels begin, his heart sounding more broken with each letter of her name. She wanted to stay and hear what he would say to her, but Guina pulled her down the stairs and out the door.
“Stop thinking about him,” Guina said. “He’ll be fine whether he leaves or stays. He’s strong. Annoying, but strong. You, however, will have a useless foot and a kitchen crew who hates you if you don’t pull it together right now.”
Kessia sighed. “He should leave. If Luc’s trying to sell him, it means he’s grown tired of him. The Princess is his best bet… I just don’t think he can leave Ailsa. I don’t know if he’ll survive it.”
“That’s not your relationship to worry about. At least not right now.” Guina gestured towards Evyn, who was finishing checking on the pastries and heading towards the gathered girls.
“Master Luc has requested for five of you to wait on him and the Princess,” Evyn said, her eyes roaming over the girls.
Guina raised her hand. “I’ll do it,” she called.
Evyn narrowed her eyes at her and looked away. “Wyla, Naomi, Lis, Quinta, and…” she considered Guina’s anxious hand, “Kessia.”
Guina pouted. “Sorry, Gee,” Kessia said, stepping up behind the other girls. Evyn gave each of them a tray and pushed them through.
“In and out, Kessia,” Evyn said, shoving a tray of breads in her hand. “Do not linger, no matter what you see or hear. Understood?”
Kessia nodded. “In and out.”
Evyn gave her one last glance of warning before opening the door. Head held high, Kessia sauntered into the main hall and into the sitting room.
Luc Allardin, son of the Duke of Ellworn, was sprawled across the red cushioned couch. His dark brown hair was tied at the nap of his neck with a violet bow, and his matching brown eyes flickered over Kessia before returning to the Princess, who had fashioned a cruel smirk from her rosy lips. She sat before him in an armchair, her tulle-layered dress fanning out over the hardwood floor. She picked a teacup off of the tray Lis was holding and sipped it with a scowl.
“What in heavens is this?” she said, shoving the teacup into Lis’s chest.
“Ch-chamomile, Your Highness,” Lis said, head bowed.
“It tastes wretched. Fetch me something else.”
Lis glanced at Master Luc, her eyes desperate. “What would you have?”
“Tell Evyn to prepare black lemon,” Luc said. Lis nodded with a curtsy and stepped back through the room.
Princess Ilona raised a groomed brow. “Evyn?”
“Heads the kitchen staff,” Luc said.
“You know the Whites’ names?”
“Only the ones who survive.” He gave her a grin to match hers as their eyes both flickered to the anklets around the girls’ legs. The Princess’s gaze caught on Kessia’s and stopped. She raised her head, trailing those lingering brown eyes over her body until she was staring deep into Kessia’s.
She cocked her head, her eyes narrowing as she considered her. “Which one is this?”
Luc glanced at Kessia, pursing his lips as if he wasn't quite sure. He shifted his jaw, thinking, then his eyes brightened in recognition. "Kacie, isn't it?"
"Kessia, my lord," she said.
"Yes, yes," he turned to the Princess. "This is the one my bedroom slave is always going on about. I have told you about him, haven't I? I think you'd adore him."
"What exactly are you planning, dearest Luc?" the Princess asked with a sly grin.
Luc sighed. "I've grown tired of him. I thought perhaps you would enjoy an addition to your collection. Father won't let me get another one until I rid myself of him."
"Uncle's always been stingy, hasn't he?" the Princess chuckled. "Alas, you know I don't take pre-owned Whites. It's not proper."
"I was hoping you would reconsider if you saw him."
"And why's that?"
Luc only grinned suggestively before reaching over to pick up the bell sitting on the coffee table and ringing it. From the entryway behind him, Neels stepped out and Kessia knew he'd been there all along. That he had heard every despicable way they had referred to him. Her heart clenched for him.
"Come forward, Neels," Luc said, beckoning him with a finger.
Neels stared straight forward, not wavering for a second as the Princess appraised him like a new toy. "I see what you mean," she said. She drowned him with her gaze, so heavy and lustful, taking in the pure white skin, the straight nose, the strong jaw, the freckled cheekbones, and mostly—always mostly—the muscled cut of his body clearly outlined beneath his clothes. He was truly a sight to behold, as Kessia knew having been his best friend from the day they both first arrived in Ellworn when she was only 13 and he was 14. She had harbored a small crush for him before quickly learning that anything she felt or loved would be used against her, and by then Neels had fallen in love with Ailsa and anything more than friendship became only a distant dream Kessia always refused to consider.
"I'll sell him to you for 50 gold," Luc said, noting her interest with a pleased grin.
Ilona scoffed. "50? For an unpure White? I'll pay 35 and nothing more."
Luc considered, then nodded. "But only because I have my eye on another one, and I'm terrified Gerrard will swoop him up if I wait too long."
The Princess laughed. "Gerrard? You still speak to the bastard?"
"Not since he took the last one out from under my nose," Luc said. "He knows it too. That's why he does it. He revels in my misery."
"Shouldn't have broken his heart, cousin."
"What would you have had me do? Marry the Red?"
"Haven't you learned to not begin affairs with Reds in the first place? I mean, after Henri, you should've known—What is this White still doing here?" Ilona's eyes stabbed at Kessia, who'd been overhearing everything with only a vapid interest once Neels' sale had been settled. She was shellshocked, rooted to the floor, white knuckles grasping her tray of bread as she stared at Neels. Neels, her best friend, whose life was worth no more than 35 gold to these snakes.
"Kacie," Luc said, his voice calm despite the disappointment written across his face, "I don't believe you were told to linger."
"No, sir," Kessia said, focusing her gaze on her feet.
"Do return to the kitchen. Tell Evyn to give you another centimeter."
She gasped. "A centimeter, my Lord?"
"Would you like me to make it two?"
"No, sir," she said, biting her lip and holding back a sob.
"You're too kind to them," she heard Ilona say as she retreated back into the kitchen.
Evyn was by the door, and the look on her face, of pity and anger and concern, told Kessia she had overheard everything. She knew the tightening was inevitable, but now, with the looming departure of Neels and the possibility of losing her foot coming ever closer, she needed a moment to grieve. Evyn nodded in understanding, and dropping the tray of breads onto the center table, she ran up the stairs to the servant's quarter.
It was empty except for a shadowed figure in the corner. She narrowed her eyes, trying to make it out. The figure didn't seem to notice her at the door as it reached forward and pushed at the wall. It slid open and Kessia almost gasped. A secret passage from the servant's quarters? Who was that?
She waited until the figure disappeared into the door, and then, checking to make sure she too hadn't been followed, pushed on the wall and stepped through. It was pitch black in the tunnel but for a small light in the distance. Feeling her way around the musty stone wall, she followed the bobbing light of the figure.
It passed through her mind that perhaps she was putting herself in danger, but now that she was losing everything, she couldn't find it in herself to care. So, pushing forward, she maneuvred down the twisting path, making sure to stay quiet.
The light turned around a corner and disappeared, and Kessia quickened her steps, but when she followed it around the corner, someone grabbed her arm and stuck a blade to her throat. She couldn't see it, but she could feel the sharp cutting metal of the kitchen knife.
"Please," Kessia said. "I didn't mean to—"
"Kess?" the figure said, and let her go. She recognized the voice immediately.
"Guina? What are you doing here?"
"What are you doing here?"
"I—" she considered. "I don't really know. I was curious."
"Great Odilon, you're going to get yourself killed one of these days."
"What is this, Gee?"
Guina sighed. "It's a passage. It was built to help servants escape centuries ago when servant life actually meant something. I learned about these things back in school, and I've been searching for it since I got here. I found it two months ago, but when I went to use it, I found a guard at the exit."
"So why are you using it now?"
"Because Ilona's here," Guina said. "And that guard is being put to better use than to guard a passage no White could possibly know about."
"But you're a Red…" Kessia said, understanding.
She could hear Guina's grin. "But I'm a Red."
"I am. Are you going to tell on me?"
Kessia shook her head. "No." Guina sighed in relief, and though Kessia knew she couldn't see it, she smiled. "I'm coming with you."