Urielle kept her eyes down as she entered the cavern two levels under the palace kitchens. Quick glances upward told her that King Myrinan was already there, standing on the bridge that looked over the giant’s forehead. Her step faltered when she saw the king, but she pushed forward, her heart thundering as she passed behind him on the balls of her feet, hoping not to make a sound. The king was unpredictable of late, and many a serving friend had lost their heads for small mistakes. The king’s entire focus was on the giant, though, who had a look of deep concentration.
Urielle went to the wall and retrieved the long handled scrub brush and bucket, which she filled as quietly as she could from the cauldron of minted water. With a deep curtsy toward the king, she climbed the stairs that ran up to the giant’s jawline. She paused briefly beside the giant’s ear.
“Good morning,” she whispered. “I’ll sing to you next time.”
She saw the corner of the giant’s lip curve toward her in a smile and she patted his cheek, finishing her climb up the staircase. He peeled his lips back from his smile and she began scrubbing his teeth.
When she returned to her chamber for a change of clothes later that day, Urielle discovered a girl sitting on the spare bed. Until recently it had been Darla’s, but King Myrinan had been able to hear Darla breathing from across the room, and that was the end of Darla. Urielle had liked her, though she hadn’t known her long. This new girl had alert eyes and a stillness to her that most folk didn’t share.
“Hello,” Urielle greeted, taking off her mint soaked apron and grabbing a fresh one from her wardrobe. “I’m Urielle. Tooth brusher. Do you have an assignment yet?”
The girl twitched her head at Urielle when she’d started speaking, reminding Urielle of a bird.
“Absulla,” she said. “I’ve been assigned to some lord’s son. Hendron, I think.”
Again that stillness had come over her, and Urielle found herself working on a puzzle. There was something off about Absulla. Something familiar, though, too.
“I know Hendron,” she said, smiling with assurance. “You’re lucky. He’s actually quite decent.” Handsome, too, though she kept that to herself. Hendron was one of the few noble born who didn’t mind a conversation with the help. He had spoken with her on several occasions, asking about her day, and genuinely interested, it seemed, in her well-being.
Josie came in the far door, and Absulla twitched her head at the movement. Just visible above her collar was the hint of a tattoo. Urielle stifled a gasp. Absulla was of the fabled tree folk. That was the puzzle. Tree folk were half legend. Traveling merchants told of them mostly, and most of those tales were half lie. It was said that the tree folk knew the secrets of the forests and the amount of magic they possessed depended upon the storyteller.
In the days before Urielle had been taken to serve in the palace, she’d seen only a handful of them, men mostly, with their strange braids and the tattoos traveling up the back of their necks. She never heard them speak, though she and the other children shadowed them as they made their way through market trading goods. At the forest they disappeared after a few steps, no matter how many children had followed along to see where they went. There were no people more mysterious, or more free of King Myrinan’s reign, than the tree folk. Absulla’s presence in the palace was either a sign of hope or a sign of despair.
Absulla had been studying Urielle’s discarded apron. “Whose teeth do you brush?” she asked with a frown.
Urielle laughed. She pictured what Absulla must be thinking. Still, she wasn’t about to speak of the giant if she valued her neck’s connection to her head.
“Big teeth,” she said. “I’ll see you around.”
She had the giantess to attend to before she went back for the evening scrub, and that was far trickier. The giantess was trapped under what looked like an ancient rock slide, making it difficult to access her mouth between giant slabs of jagged rock. She lay at an odd angle as well, which had her always moaning. Her cavern was deep under the castle, accessed by a hand carved tunnel with uneven stairs etched into it. The king barely ever visited the giantess, and only a few servants were spared to oversee her comfort. It was the giant who interested the king. More specifically, it was the things the giant made for him that interested the king.
“You must take it,” the giantess moaned.
“Take what?” asked Urielle. The other attendants had filtered from the cavern, and she realized that for the first time, she and the giantess were alone.
“The little king has him bringing a terrible creature into this world,” she said, her voice muffled by the leaning stones. “My love does as he is told, but the price will be too high. It is not worth my life. Please, you have to take the egg away before it hatches, or hope will die. Tell my love what I have said. Tell him I am ready.”