Daphne picked at a splinter in her left index finger. The skin was burning red, but she didn’t know where her tweezers had gone. It was possible one of the other maids had borrowed them. Or they had just gotten lost in the daily shuffle of the castle.
After their night at battle, the sea shift women had come back to their rooms to scrape off the blood and salt. The sun was rising hot and bright, and Daphne watched with jealousy as they walked to bed. She was getting ready to leave the maids’ quarters and start her shift in the kitchen when someone nudged her elbow. Across the narrow hallway stood a small woman, Kathryn, in a blue dress and white apron with a shadow slicing across her face.
“Did you hear about what they saw?”
The last of the sea shift came through the hall, pushing the two apart, so Daphne paused. Kathryn and Daphne had started work at the same time and trained together. A maid should be neither seen nor heard, they were taught. So they had long understood each other more in silence than in speaking. Once the stragglers were out of sight, Daphne looked at Kathryn and shook her head.
“Something big, I heard,” Kathryn whispered. “That’s why they’re all so quiet today.”
“Did it see them back?”
Kathryn nodded, her knuckles white around the belt of her apron. A bell rang somewhere, and Daphne hurried away without saying goodbye. Kathryn did the same.
The rest of the castle was noisier, but no one else paused to speak to Daphne like Kathryn had. The maids were a serious bunch. They were always in mourning. So Daphne was left alone all day to stew over the new monster.
Dark things in the sea, scaly and cold—they had all seen them. Trade ships fled the harbor without leaving behind the goods they had traveled to deliver. The kingdom’s best sailors, who had survived in new lands without so much as a map, were found drowned in the morning if they dared to stay out after sunset. These creatures were a blight on the legacy of the land.
The people asked, who among us can be responsible for filth while maintaining a certain sense of pride? The answering question: Who can clean vomit in the washroom one moment and go to dress royalty the next? The maids had discipline. And most of all, they were good cleaners. They needed to be cleaned after, these creatures.
But for the maids, it wasn’t all somber and death. Details had come together over the years. They had learned, adapted, and grown strong. They found out that the creatures could be lured by human blood and couldn’t see well in the dark. That they were strong, but not fast. That they could, in fact, be killed.
Each night, the sun set. The sea shift rowed out in their wooden boats and held their breath. Each day, the sun rose. Some maids never returned, and new girls became maids in their place. Older women, the survivors, taught their daughters how they could be the killers.
Daphne had not chosen to be a maid, but she liked cleaning just fine. She was scrubbing one of the kitchen sinks, admiring the way the surface shined after her sponge passed over it. She squinted to see a hint of her own reflection as if she was looking into the waves, trying to find a creature lurking below the surface. She caught her own eye in the reflection for a moment and smiled. She wished to be on the sea shift.
Every day at lunchtime the sea shift list was posted in the maids’ quarters. Daphne never knew if it was punishment, reward, or random chance, but she had never been assigned to go out on the boat. She wanted to be assigned. In her mind, she begged for it. Every time she checked the list, she crossed her fingers in her apron pocket, feeling waves welling up inside her chest and crashing against her rib cage.
The same today: a white piece of paper with scrolling writing, tacked to the wall opposite the windows. The maids lined up one by one, scanning and hoping, one way or the other. Only enough to fill one wooden boat were selected, a very rare fate—but still, a fate for maids alone.
Daphne stepped up to the list, running her splintered finger down the names, hoping to get caught on her own. She did not. She hadn’t been selected.
She stepped to the side, keeping her face neutral, and began picking at the splinter again. The list was no matter. The maids minded their own affairs. She just hoped she would get another glimpse of the beast tonight.