Gwen hadn’t expected that Morgana would—well, no. Gwen had never expected to be the Lady Morgana’s personal maidservant at all. Gwen is Tom the blacksmith’s daughter who learned to make nails as soon as she was old enough to hold a hammer steady; Gwen is Elyan’s sister who helped him practice swordfighting with broom handles. Gwen is still a girl but she’s the only woman in her family, and she can sew a perfect straight seam and make a plain meal but she knows nothing about waiting on ladies.
Morgana has never cared about that, though.
Gwen knows what to expect from being in service to a noblewoman: work, good food, some of her lady’s old clothes when they’ve worn too thin to be remade, a chance to find a good solid husband when she grows older. But Gwen’s lady doesn’t seem to realize that. There is work and good food, yes, but some of the clothes are almost new and others have the trim still on them.
(The first time her lady gives Gwen a dress, Gwen carefully cuts the band of flower-stitched ribbon loose from around the neck. She manages to remove it without tearing the fabric at all and hands it back to her lady the next morning, neatly rolled into a coil. Her lady looks from it to Gwen in confusion and says, “Do you not like violets?”)
Her lady wants to learn to fight and coaxes Gwen to show her, swings a broom handle with a fierce and joyous grin, moves like she can overturn the world with it if she does it just right. Her lady has nightmares that tear great holes in her court-polished indifference, and when she wakes and clings to Gwen she shakes and cries like any other person might.
Somewhere along the way, Gwen’s lady becomes Lady Morgana, and then just Morgana.
Gwen is fifteen when Wat the baker’s apprentice asks her if he may court her, all shy stammering and mouse-brown hair falling into his eyes. She can see that future, for a minute: a husband, children to hear the lullabies she still remembers her mother singing; a house of her own, eventually, that always smells clean and sweet with the bread and pastries from Wat’s kitchens. She can see that future, and it’s tiny.
A few weeks later, Morgana says—idly, anyone else would think, but Gwen knows Morgana’s face and the lines of her body so well that she knows it’s not—“Have you thought about when you intend to marry?”
“Oh no,” Gwen says, the words bursting out of her like a dam breaking, “I don’t want to leave you—I mean, not unless you want—if you want me to leave I’ll, there was, I can—”
And Morgana, mercifully, cuts her off, relaxing so that she no longer seems thin-stretched over a collection of bones and angled tension and saying, “If you want to be my lady-in-waiting, I should teach you how to read. I don’t know why I never offered before.”
Gwen doesn’t say, because a baker’s house would have been even smaller if I’d known what places outside Camelot were like. She thinks Morgana knows, anyway.
They start slowly. Gwen’s hands, so deft with a needle, learn the use of a quill with a speed that secretly relieves her—she’d been afraid she’d shame herself in front of Morgana. Matching the shapes of letters to sounds comes harder. Morgana is all quicksilver cleverness, casual knowledge, and Gwen feels like she should be apologizing for every time Morgana has to slow herself down. Those times get fewer and fewer, though, and every time Gwen understands something she didn’t before pride bursts sun-warm through her.
Summer fades into autumn, huddles down into winter. Bits of ice float palely in the inkwells, and Morgana pulls Gwen closer to her when they sit side-by-side in front of the fire. The air is sharp with smoke but Gwen can still smell the cool sweetness of Morgana’s perfumed soap and beneath that the heat of Morgana’s skin.
“ ‘ “My love, we’re like that vine and tree,” ’ ” Morgana says quietly, trailing her finger along beneath the line she’s reading as Gwen shapes the words with her mouth. This is Gwen’s favorite part of lessons, at the end when she can test herself in silence as she listens to the gentle-crisp lilt of Morgana’s voice. “ ‘ “I’ll die without you, you without me.” ’ ”
It’s always love stories.
There are other books in Camelot, some of them even ones that Gwen has struggled through reading: stories of great deeds in battle, of monsters slain and kingdoms won, of wicked Sidhe tempting virtuous mortals; records of grain and cloth, of swords and armor. But every time Morgana selects something new for the end of lessons it’s something soft and bittersweet.
In their safe little island of warmth, glowing gold with firelight and and sunlight, Gwen draws in a breath and dares to say, “I like the poems you choose.”
Morgana’s heart beats bird-quick, her pulse a flutter in the side of her throat, close enough to taste. “You do?”
“I do,” Gwen says, and—Morgana is powerful and intelligent, beautiful and important; if Morgana were a man she’d be the kind of husband Gwen could never even have dreamed of having for herself—Gwen doesn’t know how to say anything else, but now she hopes that Morgana can read it off her face.
“Good,” Morgana says with a radiant-sharp smile. After a moment she curls her free hand around Gwen’s, tentatively, and Gwen squeezes back.