As our procession spilled through the old wooden gates, dirty-faced urchins leaped onto the path, offering rooms, food, and other less savory fare, tugging at cloaks, pulling at mantles. Avoiding the children, I steered around the visiting merchants and traveling hawkers who paused to pay tolls and slipped past the packhorses and carts to head toward the town center. Jostled by the farmers with their corn and livestock, apprentices wearing leather aprons and earnest expressions, the way was slow. Before I'd passed the well, the bells of St. Stephen's began to toll, announcing the official opening of the market. Around me, shop shutters sprang open, their bleary-eyed owners waving customers forth. "Hot pottage," "Baked sheep's cheek," "Venetian silk," "Copper pans going cheap"; their cries mingled and were soon drowned in the discordant symphony of market day. Catching a glimpse of our housekeeper, Saskia, among the crowd, I darted down the lane near St. Nichols and increased my pace. It wasn't that I didn't like Saskia—on the contrary, as one of my mother's countrywomen, a constant presence since I was a baby, I loved her dearly. I just wanted to enjoy a few more minutes of my own company, without questions or making decisions or, what I was really avoiding, the suffocating weight of the unspoken. I also wanted to make it home before Hiske knew where I'd been or the twins escaped the nursery. If she spied me, Saskia, with the familiarity of a valued servant, would suborn me to her will. I needed to dry myself and change my gown. More importantly, I had to erase the worry from my face and voice. Why I insisted on doing this, going to the seaside these last few days, I was uncertain. It was a compulsion I couldn't resist. It gave me purpose, prevented me from feeling quite so helpless. I thought about what I'd tell the twins today, how I would distract them. I rounded the corner back onto Market Street, the main road that led to the gate at the other end of town. Walking against the tide of people, I drew my hood, quickened my step, and entered the alley that ran beside my home. I unlatched the garden gate and squeezed through.
Passing our scant vegetable patch, I hugged the outside wall of the old stables, plucking at the laces at my throat and pulling my cloak off my shoulders and my hood from my head, still hoping I wouldn't be spotted from upstairs. I was relieved to note Patroclus and Achilles, our two wolfhounds, were absent. Adam Barfoot, the steward, must be walking them—a task he'd performed for years now, ever since we'd let go of the servants Hiske persuaded Father we no longer needed. I tossed the two bones I'd carried in my pockets as a bribe for their peace toward the kennels. The dogs could enjoy them on their return. Perhaps my early-morning vigil would go undetected after all.
Folding my cloak and hood over my arm and adopting nonchalance, as if it was always my custom to stroll in the gardens at dawn, I crossed the courtyard, passing the disused brewhouse.
"God give you good day, Mistress Sheldrake."
My hand flew to my breast.
The chambermaid, Doreen, appeared carrying a basket of eggs over her arm. "About early again?" Her sharp eyes looked me up and down, taking in my windswept hair, damp clothes, and muddy boots. "And alone, I see." She sniffed her disapproval.
With a sinking heart, I knew she'd report me to Hiske. If Hiske knew, so too would Father. I sighed. There was no point denying what her eyes, the state of my clothes, and my chest, heaving from rushing, clearly told her.
"As you can see, Doreen, I am. Again," I added defiantly, my cheeks flaming, then swept past her, almost knocking the basket from her forearm.
I entered the kitchen with as much equanimity as I could muster. The heat of the stove and the smell of baking bread made me aware of how chilled I was—and hungry. My mouth watered as I greeted the cook, Blanche, who stopped what she was doing and studied me, eyebrows arched.
"Mistress Anneke, you haven't been," she began, but paused as Doreen appeared behind me, "enjoying the fresh air and rain again?" she asked with false gaiety. "I'll have some hot water and a tray sent to your room, shall I? We don't want you catching your death."
"Mistress Jabben is expecting Mistress Sheldrake to join her in the hall, Mistress Blanche—" Doreen was getting bolder by the day.
Ignoring Doreen, I turned to the cook. "Thank you, Blanche." My gratitude was in my smile. "That would be perfect." Avoiding Doreen's pursed lips and cold stare, I scurried through the hall before Hiske, who was sitting at the far end, close to the hearth, saw me. Thrusting aside my dignity, I bunched my tunic and shot up the stairs two at a time.