If the girl knew what it was I gave her to sew with, she gave no indication, but worked quickly and competently to put me in in order. The weight of the thread greatly increased the weight of the dress, but it was evenly distributed, and not that much of a bother. The spool was nearly gone by the time she finished (there was so much to sew- how did ladies do this every day? And did their maids pick out the stitches at night, or just cut them? I shuddered at the thought of all that waste.) so I instructed her to use the remainder to dress my hair. She wove it through braids, which she then twisted into a crown on my head. She tried to take the wooden spindle necklace from me (“You need gemstones for such an outfit!”) but on that point I would not budge- it was now the only remaining momento of my mother. In compromise I tucked it into my bodice where it would not show, and although it poked uncomfortably into my ribs, I found the pain a comfort.
For a finishing touch she applied a fine white powder to my entire face, (“Made of pearls, my lady,” she said in an awed tone,) and a touch of red paint to my lips. It felt very odd, indeed, and I could not resist a look in the mirror when she’d finished. Color of the dress aside, I looked like a fine lady, indeed. Or at the very least, not like a kidnapped peasant.
There came a knock on the door as I contemplated my own bemused expression, and the girl opened it to reveal a young boy, who had been sent to fetch me. I was escorted to small chamber, where the king lounged on an ornately carved chair.
“Ah!” he leapt to his feet when I entered, grabbing my hand and kissing my fingertips as I sank into a curtsy. I managed- barely- not to snatch my hand back. “The lovely miller’s daughter! Why, I hardly recognize you, my dear,” he kept hold of my hand, and I did my best not to squirm. “Although you hardly look a miller’s daughter now,” he said with approval, eyes lingering too-long on my decolletage.
“And yet that is what I remain, your majesty,” I did remove my hand, then, and smoothed my skirts as though I was nervous, and not merely wiping off his touch. “Thank you very much for the dress: it’s lovely, but unnecessary.”
“Nonsense!” the king laughed. “A royal guest must be royally dressed! Besides, you have pleased me greatly. Consider it a thank-you gift.”
I inclined my head. “As his majesty wishes.”
“Now,” he grabbed my arm and tucked it through his own. “Let us walk a while, and discuss the future.”
“What is there to discuss, sire? Have I not fulfilled my obligations to the crown? Is it not time for me to return to my village?”
“You certainly did well,” he said, giving my hand a patronizing pat, and steering me through a door hidden behind a curtain, and down a long, torch-lit hallway, “But of course I knew you would not disappoint your king.”
“Of course not, sire.”
“As for returning to your village- well.” I waited, but he did not continue as we went further down the windowless hallway, and my blood ran cold through my veins.
“His majesty promised not to exploit me,” I said, hating myself for the way my voice whispered in panic.
“Of course we will not exploit you!” the king said. “But surely- surely you would do as much for your kingdom as you can? To refuse aid would be treasonous,” his fingers suddenly crushed mine, and tears sprang to my eyes. “And I do so hate treason.”
We came to the end of the hallway at last, and he opened up a door to reveal another stone room, larger than the last, and containing far more straw.
“The problem with traitors,” he said conversationally, “Is that while they might seem to come from nowhere, they are, in fact, carefully nurtured by a community of traitors. That’s why, when I find a traitor, I don’t just kill him- I root out his entire line before the poison can spread to other villages. It’s safest for the kingdom, you understand.”
I did not answer.
“Good!” he said, and gave me a little push through the door. I stumbled, tripping over the edge of my gown, and barely caught myself before falling face-first into the knee-high straw. “Now,” he said, “if you spin all of this into gold before morning, I shall know you and your people to be loyal citizens!”
With that he closed the door behind him, and again I heard the bolt slide home.