She hurried along the castle corridors, torchlight flickering at irregular intervals along the rough stone walls. Her flame hair streamed out behind her and a handful of skirt was gripped tightly in one hand so she would not trip over the long hem. The corridors were empty, the windows looking out into blackness - a velvet so dark not even the flicker of stars could be seen. She spared not a glance for this; she had not seen the sun, stars, or moon once in her short life, and their absence did not strike her as unusual or ominous. The silence of the castle, however, could be felt as well as heard. Her feet pounding the flagstones made the only sound, and it echoed down the long halls.
She ran around a corner, and halted at a door concealed in shadow, barely large enough to admit her slight frame. She halted to catch her breath, and when her heartbeat had quieted at last, pushed it open. The stark bare walls of the passage vanished behind her as she stepped into warmth and light.
"Ashrinde! At last! Come quickly, child, I am needed in the council room." Not all of the castle slumbered. The queen had changed herself from her nightgown into a simple dress of deep red, but her hair still lay across her shoulders, tousled from sleep and gleaming in the light of a lamp set upon the wardrobe. Ashrinde curtsied, and crossed the room in a swishing of skirts to do as she was bid. Her mistress may have dressed herself, but her hair still needed to be put in order.
"Why have you been summoned, milady?" Ashrinde asked, beginning her work with the comb and her voice pitched low to disguise her curiosity.
"A merchant has returned from the sea. His vessel was destroyed on the rocks." The queen's voice was steady, but Ashrinde could feel the tension in her shoulders.
"Was he...new?" her hands paused in their work, but only briefly. Most merchants were born and raised around boats and the sea, Ashrinde knew. She waited impatiently for the queen to answer, her hands darting in and out of her mistress' hair.
"Oh, he knew his business. An old seadog, he had been providing for his children and grandchildren with the sea for nearly thirty years. He knows the sea and the rocks better than he knows his own home."
Ashrinde frowned, pausing. "Then how?"
"That is what we are going to find out," the queen said. "If you will kindly finish?" Ashrinde, blushing furiously at her lapse, resumed her work and secured the final twist of hair in place with a pin. She completed her task by placing a jeweled necklace around the queen's throat, and glancing quickly down her back to ensure every button had been fastened correctly.
"Milady," Ashrinde said, curtsying once more. The queen rose from her seat and walked across the thick carpets to the main door. The door Ashrinde had used lay forgotten in a corner.
"Thank you, Ashrinde. Accompany me to the council room, if you please."
Ashrinde's breath caught in surprise, and she hid her hands in her skirts, where they twisted in the fabric. "Milady?" She was certain she had misheard. She was normally sent away once her duties had been completed.
"Come. I know you will listen at the door if I do not bring you with me. Or you will pester someone until you discover what has happened." Ashrinde swallowed and bowed her head in shame, but the queen only smiled. "Am I incorrect?"
"No, milady," Ashrinde said softly. It was true; she often listened to conversations that she knew had nothing to do with her. She had been told, many times, that her curiosity was insatiable and would get her into trouble. Usually by someone she had overheard saying something they wanted kept quiet, which meant that she dismissed it as sour grapes and went on her way. Normally, however, her eavesdropping was discouraged. So the queen's invitation came as a surprise.
"Then come. You must keep your silence unless the king or I give you permission, but you may come and listen."
"Thank you, highness," Ashrinde said, bowing her head in thanks. She followed her queen through the main door, her stomach aquiver with a mixture of curiosity and excitement. What would she hear in this secret meeting? What was so important that the queen and, ostensibly the king, had to be roused in the middle of the night?
Upon entering the main halls of the castle, Ashrinde found herself at the mercy of the queen. Though she knew well the corridors and passages the servants used, she had rarely ventured into the main corridors, and never at night. She trotted after the sweeping train of her mistress' dress, trying to guess where they were in relation to the servant corridors.
Ashrinde followed her mistress through the halls of the castle, up and down staircases, through doors, across rooms, until the queen finally came to a halt outside a plain wooden door. Ashrinde, who had never before seen the inside of the council chamber, peeked around her mistress in interest. The queen stopped only long enough for Ashrinde to ensure her dress was straight and her hair in place before opening the door and sweeping inside, head held high, as if she had not just been awakened from sleep.
Ashrinde trailed after, trying not to step on the train of her lady's gown as she gazed around her. It was a small room, she saw, nondescript and without ornamentation. On the far end was a fireplace, which had been stoked until the flames roared, casting flickering light across the stone and filling the room with the sweet scent of woodsmoke.
"Milady." A tall, thin man standing by the fire bowed deeply, and the queen inclined her head. Travis, the chamberlain, then glanced at Ashrinde, and his dark eyebrows drew together in a frown. The queen, seeing his glance, caught his eye.
"Ashrinde is here by my own invitation," the queen said. Travis bowed, but his sharp eyes did not leave Ashrinde. The maid shrank back until she was partially hidden by her lady's skirts, and only then noticed there were two men in the room. The second had been sitting before the fire, slumped into his chair so that the two appeared to be only one shadow. He struggled to his feet. "Peace," the queen said, gesturing for him to sit. "You have just come back from a harrowing voyage, I hear. You may offer me your courtesy later; I fear a bow now would topple you to the floor." She smiled gently at him, and he blinked as if presented with a light greater than he had expected.
The man collapsed back onto his stool, and Ashrinde saw that he was shivering. His clothing was dry, so she took that to mean it was borrowed, though his face and hair were still damp. A blanket had been draped around his shoulders, and he dabbed at his grizzled, bearded cheeks with a handkerchief.
A plate, a bowl, and a heavy mug sat on the table before the shivering man. The bowl had been wiped clean of every last drop of stew, the smell of which still lingered on the air. The mug alone still appeared to be full, as it was steaming; with tea, Ashrinde noted, sniffing the air.
"Where is the king?" the queen asked.
"He is on his way, highness."
Barely a moment later, the door opened once more to reveal a flurried scene in the corridor. In strode the king, fully-clothed, and with a sword belted around his waist. His menservants were bobbing around the door, talking in whispers. As the king strode in, one courageous servant stepped forward and jerked the king's cloak into place before he leaped backward and the king slammed the door in his face. Though fully dressed, the king's clothing was crooked, wrinkled, and appeared to have been put on in an enormous hurry. Or, Ashrinde guessed, as the king was marching through the castle.
The queen curtsied deeply, as did Ashrinde, though she had to drag her attention away from the haphazard appearance of her king and was rather later in her curtsy than was considered polite. The king seemed not to notice. Travis had bowed, and the merchant had again tried to rise.
"Do sit down," the king said sharply to the merchant, who fell back onto his stool. "Are you able to speak?" the king directed at the merchant. Ashrinde had never heard the king speak when he was so near, and she found his voice both loud and gravelly.
"Y-yes, your m-majesty," the merchant said, his teeth clacking together. He paused and took a deep breath. Trying to calm himself, perhaps.
"Then speak. Tell us why you have come in the middle of the night, and why the chamberlain has awakened us." The king pulled a chair from the long table for the queen, who settled herself in it gracefully, inclining her head at her husband in thanks. The king then flicked his fingers at the chamberlain and Ashrinde to sit. He did not glance twice at the maid, who sank into a seat as far into the corner as she could find. Despite her invitation to attend, the idea of sitting in the ring of light cast by the fire made her shift uneasily. She was far too used to hiding.
The merchant began to speak, his silver beard catching the firelight.
He had grown up with the sea. The castle of the king had been built on sea cliffs, and the town below had access to a harbor. The merchant had grown up on a merchant's boat, his father's. When his father died, he took over the family business, traveling up and down the coast to different kingdoms and trading goods by sea. He had traveled extensively this time, nearly a yearlong absence. He had turned his ship homeward, and was approaching the dangerous rocks of the Harch shoreline, thinking of his wife and her cooking, when he heard it.
"Heard what?" the king asked.
"The voices," the merchant said. "Sweet voices, singing beautiful songs. I fell into darkness, as if I forgot who I was and what I was doing. I only awakened when I fell into the sea. And by then, my ship had been dashed on the rocks. It had been broken to pieces, and I would have died as well, had I not found a piece of wood floating on the waves."
"He climbed from the sea and came to the gates, insisting he see you, sire," the chamberlain said.
"Of course," the merchant said. "I knew that the king needed to know."
"Know what, precisely?" the king asked, arms crossed and looking in ill humor.
"That there are sirens living in the rocks. Any ship that tries to pass runs the risk of being sung to death."