I smelled the intruder long before I spotted him. His perfume and sweat and fear assaulted me as I relaxed in my study, their sickly strangeness a vile reminder of my hateful form, my unnaturalness. Not that I could ever forget, but I hated him for reminding me. He smelled familiar, of greed and sin and the city. He was a long way lost to have found me. I became curious, and went to the open door to stand on a stone balcony on the western face of my palace. The marble was slick far into the hall where wind carried dying snowflakes.
He stumbled blindly out of the woods and I got my first good view of him as he trudged across the grounds. He was headed straight for the castle now, but he wouldn’t see me, high above. The swirling snow would blind him and sting his eyes and skin, but I barely felt it. I watched for an hour. The sky was darkening by the time he crossed under my perch to find the front doors. My doublet was dusted with snow, and crystals hung in my fur like a silver mantle. I let myself inside as he passed out of sight, the stranger’s weak cries for asylum distorted by the cruel wind.
As the warmth of the hall welcomed me inside, I considered greeting the stranger personally, but decided against it. The courtiers could make their own sport of him. He’d be gone by morning. I made my way down to the second floor where I could observe him as he entered. The courtiers had opened the door and left the hall dark, but it seemed a fire was burning in a room deeper into the castle. I wondered idly where they planned to entertain our guest.
The man who entered had clearly been lost at least a few days. The cheeks visible beneath his soiled hat were dirty and thick with stubble. His oilcloth coat was torn and muddy. His boots were clearly meant for riding, but the man came on foot. No natural animal would enter my woods. He had nothing with him. I wondered for a moment when he’d last seen a bath or a good meal.
He called timidly to the empty room. As with all my unexpected guests, he was put off by the lonely hollowness of my home, but already his gaunt face flushed with the warmth of the room. Even the best manners, the most cowardly heart, would not override his desperation. Reflections of flickering firelight twinkled in his eyes like the very spirit of need, and he was transfixed. He continued to call weakly, but he no longer looked around as he shuffled toward the light.
As he passed me, I padded silently down the grand staircase and fell in step a few paces behind him. Like a man possessed, he moved slowly toward the light. Beyond the foyer, the light led us down a corridor. I knew the man before me was too weak to wonder how he could have seen this light from the entrance, buried as it was. I, of course, knew the game. I followed him to a salon. I rarely used this room, but it had a large fireplace, and comfortable high-backed chairs. I hesitated just outside the door. Layered with the stranger’s smell were the scents of hot buttered rum and roast pheasant. A compliment to his breeding, he paused a moment before tearing into the food. Or perhaps he took a sip first. As the stranger dug in, I left him to his meal and went to see about my own supper. I’d let the courtiers deal with our guest. Instead I spent the evening in my library, as always, and finally went to bed.
My uninvited guest haunted my dreams as he did my halls. I walked unseen behind him through his home just as I had stalked him through mine. In my dream, I was no more than a few feet behind him. I could feel the warmth of his body, sense the tired beat of his heart. He was clearly worn from traveling, and something told me he’d been gone a long time. His home was rich, though at once fallen. The furniture was well-made but worn. Bare spots on the walls still mourned their missing paintings. The man sat himself at a table with worn linens, nibbled a bite of hard cheese before he was joined by two lovely young women, each the mirror of the other. Though fair, they had their father’s features.
They looked as fallen as the house, their clothing the sort that’s designed to be worn only as long as it’s in fashion, and theirs in service long past its prime. They smelled of pretention and watered-down perfume, and their eyes were those of wolves as they eyed their father. Their dark curls bobbed as they rushed in and fell upon him, affecting excitement as they each kissed his cheeks and begged to hear if he’d brought them anything.
When they realized there were no presents forthcoming, the pale jackals withdrew and took their seats, commenting sourly to each other about the blandness of their food and the tragedy that they were doomed to die as maids. As their father floundered, a third young woman appeared at the door. She was rosy where the twins were pale, and her hair was spun gold framing delicate features. When she appeared, I felt the stranger’s heart beating faster, caught the sweet musk of his excitement, and something else, something bitter and sad.
She was easily the youngest of the three, barely a woman at all. The warmth of her love was nearly tangible, and she stood on tiptoe to embrace my guest and plant a single sweet kiss on his grizzled cheek.
“Welcome home, Father.”
I woke feeling sinful, as if I had somehow helped this man. In an instant, I knew why. This was no dream. I fought my revulsion, and suddenly I heard a chorus of laughter from below. That… that monster was still in my home. Drunk off my wine and fatted on my food, enjoying the company of my courtiers. The villain. Why had he come here? No matter.
I struggled to dress myself, nearly blinded by my own rage as I rushed downstairs, but no flicker remained in the hall and the hint of smoke on the air told me the fire was out.
“Where is he?” I roared to the emptiness. I could feel the castle’s terror as it whispered to me. He’d just left. I threw open the heavy outer doors so hard for a moment I wondered if I’d damaged the hinges. No matter. I must find him.
Crossing before me were the tracks of one of the fleet of coaches which had brought me and the courtiers here. They led from the carriage yard toward the southern gate. I sprinted, deigning to run on all fours lest I lose him for good.
I reached the coach and found it full of gowns, gold, and even a few candlesticks, but no living thing. I turned, and we spotted each other at the same time. He was walking out of a garden, a single rose in his gloved hand. My gloves. His body was motionless, but his eyes darted, unwilling to meet mine, searching desperately for escape.
In half a heartbeat I was on him, lifting him by the collar of what must have been my jacket until we were eye to eye. When the incoherent begging started, I realized it was layered over my own low growl. I hadn’t meant to… it didn’t matter. HIs terrified eyes finally met mine, and I realized they were the same dazzling green as the girl’s. His daughter’s. My mind went blank.
My mind fogged as if still asleep, I began dragging him back toward the castle. As I looked away his babbling became clear and strong, though he was still begging for his own worthless life. He was a good man who just got lost. He didn’t think anything–anyone!–lived here. He meant no harm. He had a family. Three innocent daughters, who would die without him.
That gave me pause. He was begging on his daughters’ behalf, that I might let him go back to lusting after his own child. His depravity knew no bounds. Suddenly even touching him was distasteful to me. I wanted him to disappear, and to forget he’d ever been. I let his body fall to the ground behind me.
“Family,” I said slowly, “is everything.”
He mumbled in sycophantic agreement, gushing about my virtues. My wisdom, and mercy.
“Mercy,” I repeated. “Yes. I will show you mercy.”
He stammered his thanks. I turned and met his eyes again.
“You have helped yourself to my gold and my belongings.” He did not deny it. “Take them back to your family and see that they are cared for.”
His eyes widened as he continued to spew poetic thanks. He rose to his feet and hurried toward the coach.
“You have one month.”
He stopped dead. “One month for what?”
“To make arrangements for your daughters’ well-being. And to say goodbye. Then you will surrender yourself to me.”
I saw the wheels turning in his mind before the protest formed on his lips. “Of course, sir, you are very kind… but… surely I could never find this place again.”
I did my best to smile. “Then I will send for you.”
I watched as my coach full of my things carried him out of sight. As I turned to go inside, I saw the stolen rose where it lay forgotten. I gently shook the snow from the blood red bloom and wondered why a man so base would even notice something so pure as this.
The hours slipped by, and still he did not come home. Aveline kept vigil at her window, fruitlessly re-reading the same page again and again as she concentrated on stifling the small voice within her which whispered, he is not coming. She’d stay up all night if she had to. He’d come home, and she’d squeeze every last moment with him before the beast stole him away. He had already been gone three weeks… nearly the whole month since his ordeal at the cursed castle. It seemed he had barely caught his breath before he disappeared again. But tonight he’d be home. And tomorrow… he’d be gone forever.
Aveline gazed out into the swirling snow, and her mind tumbled through the familiar fears and fantasies. What if he was lost? What would that horror do to him if he arrived late? Why did he have to go at all? They could simply move. Pick up right then and establish new residence far away. The twins would scream to lose their social calendar, but to keep Father… but what if the monster tracked them? Would he hunt them down? Perhaps it was better to submit to its demands.
She strained to remember every word he’d said about his strange dealings with the beast. Three months ago, he’d had a letter saying one of his ships, presumed lost this long year, was recovered, and with it perhaps a part of his fortune. He had set out to investigate, and been gone nearly two months. In his absence, she had struggled to manage the dying house, their father’s diminished fortune insufficient even to support this, their fallen state. They had been waiting, weeks past his expected return, when one night he was delivered by a strange carriage, which moved as though pulled by a strong team, but it had neither beasts nor driver.
Her father had come home diminished, though he brought with him many riches. He told a strange story, of recovering wagonloads of tradegoods and hiring an escort to help him ferry it home, so he could pay off their debts and begin to rebuild his once-great merchant empire. Nearly home, he’d explained, he had walked into the woods to relieve himself and when he came back, the camp was deserted. With nothing but the clothes on his back, he wandered for days, eventually coming upon the castle which would prove his undoing. He was set upon by a cruel monster, who offered him hospitality and gifts before insisting that he pay with his life.
She rose and fed another log into the fire. It would be cheery if she could find any mirth in the evening. It had been so long since they could burn a proper fire without thought to thrift, but Aveline was painfully aware that even the firewood itself was paid for in her father’s blood. She was suddenly overtaken with a mad desire to extinguish the flame, so not to watch her father’s life-debt burn to ashes. She resisted, instead tearing her eyes away from the taunting pyre and sitting quietly again by the window. She took up her book again, summoning all her concentration to muscle through that same stubborn passage.
Within a few sentences, her mind had drifted, far out into the snow, back to the home of her childhood, the great estate where she and her sisters were born, where they had lived in great wealth for all the years of her youth. From that estate, her mother’s shade reached for her memory, and she saw her father robust and happy, eternally returning home from another fascinating land with strange stories and exotic gifts. Before the illness that took her mother, and before the storms that dashed her father’s little fleet and with it, their fortune. Before they’d been cast into obscurity in the country. Aveline did not mind obscurity so much as her sisters, but the warm seduction of nostalgia drew her in until she was overcome.
The golden warmth of her mother’s memory froze in her grasp, and she shrugged against the back of the chair. As the book slipped from her grasp to land with a dull thud on the bare plank floor, she shuddered awake. The fire had dwindled to embers, but the cold light of dawn reached over the trees. The snow had ceased, leaving the world glittering but cold. Aveline rushed to the window, and there, just in sight, was the carriage! He had arrived just in time. Surely he was simply delayed by the storm.
Aveline rushed down the stairs, calling to her sisters as she went. They’d complain about the early hour, but surely they’d want to see him off. The hall was untouched as she arrived. He must have just arrived. She triumphantly threw open the door, bare feet flinching against the invasion of icy air, and for a moment could not understand what she saw.
Here was a carriage, horseless as the one which had delivered her father from the beast’s hellish castle, its black door yawning open like the maw of the creature itself. She stared into the blackness within, and felt profoundly like there was nothing else in the world but she and the carriage. The tide of thoughts which had carried her tumbling down the stairs abated, and she felt her body relax.
As she stepped into the snow, she heard the dull crunch but no longer felt the cold. As she climbed into the dark coach, she was dimly aware of her sisters’ voices from within. She wanted to turn and look, to wave goodbye or speak or cry out, but she thought if she did, surely her strength would dissolve. She sat stiffly, eyes fixed ahead. As the strange carriage lurched into motion, her sisters’ cries chased her down the road and away from her home for the last time.
When their voices faded, Aveline’s resolve crumpled, and hot tears streamed freely down her face. She clutched blindly at the soft velvet of the seat, her mind inventing scores of terrible fates which might await her. The carriage rattled on for eternity upon eternity, and the cold cut through her dress and shift and prickled her bare fingers and toes. She curled up and tried to tuck as she could beneath her woolen skirt, but it seemed whatever she did the icy wind would find her.
The morning brightened into day, Aveline wondered what people would say of her grotesque conveyance. Yet though they traveled upon the roads, they passed no town nor saw any living thing. The cold was an ache in her hands and feet as they tore on through endless woods, and the sun began to sink again. Hungry, stiff from cold and exhausted from her dreadful imaginings, Aveline curled pitifully upon the seat and wondered if she would simply die of cold over the night.
The carriage came to a sudden stop, and nearly immediately the coach door was ripped open, nearly torn off its hinges. Aveline gasped as she caught her first glimpse of the monster which now held her freedom. the frame of the little door was choked with fur and claws and even silhouetted as it was in the red twilight, she could make out its fearsome fangs.
The beast grasped either side of the doorframe as if to peel the carriage open as a man might an oyster. It thrust in its grisly head, massive shoulders held at bay by the narrow portal. Its great chest heaved with breath and a low growl filled the tiny space. Aveline shrunk into the corner, staring wildly at the bristling beast as it stared wildly back.
The monster fell still and silent as it regarded Aveline, and her terror came to a head. She backed fruitlessly away, trapped in its box, and her courage abandoned her. Fat tears spilled hot down her face, and she buried her head in her arms and braced for the worst. For what felt like a century, she was frozen there, waiting for the monster’s claws to rake through her tender flesh, or drag her off to some worse end. Sobs wracked her cold, stiff body.
When the waiting itself became an unbearable torture, she raised her head to steal a glance at the monster… but it was gone. Aveline stared into the fading dusk, wondering what would make the beast withdraw. Perhaps it was just outside, waiting for her to venture out so it could get to her more easily. She shivered. She strained to make out some sign of danger in the falling night, but no sudden attack seemed forthcoming. Leaning to peek out, Aveline found no sign of ambush. Rather, there was a broad front door standing open and leading into a dim hall, and a sweeping track of disturbed snow leading from the carriage to the door. It must have gone back inside.
Aveline strained to understand. Was she meant to follow? It could have slain her on the spot, and yet it didn’t. Her father had described having a conversation of sorts with it… but it hadn’t spoken a word. A flurry of powder swirled in through the open door, and her fear conceded again to the sharp pain of the cold. Already the pain was not coming as often. Soon it would pass altogether, and she’d be in real danger. Since moving to the country they’d seen animals and a handful of people who’d been touched too long by winter, and were never quite whole again. Yet going inside meant following the beast into its own lair, heading into almost certain peril.
Still, she could hardly sit out here and wait to freeze. She took a deep breath and untangled her numb feet from her nightclothes as she screwed up the courage to face her monstrous host. The first step into the snow was agony, cold knives of pain slicing through the skin and up her legs. She wanted to run, but it was all she could do to drag herself forward. The dozen feet to the door were a slow and taxing effort, and when she reached the bare stone of the entry, she had to pause to catch her breath.
Though the door had been standing open, the hall was considerably warmer, the warm air caressing her tingling skin. Just inside the door waited a high-backed chair, upholstered in rich green velvet and strewn with a massive fur. Though she thought vaguely that she ought to find something to slake her thirst, exhaustion and cold got the better of her, and she curled gratefully under the skin. As she drifted into a dreamless sleep, she thought to herself that the fur was almost too warm, as if still attached to whatever had once worn it.
Sequestered in my study, I paced as my mind worked furiously over the strange turn. For a month I waited, distracted at every moment by the thought of this moment, and now it wasn’t him at all. I’d given him a chance to redeem his rotted soul, and instead he’d sent a mewling child in his own place. He sends her to pay for his crimes. Could he sink no lower?
Of course I recognized her at once. His golden child. The quiet beauty from my vision, her familiar face the confirmation of his guilt. I wondered momentarily whether it had been hard for him to part with her. Did he hesitate to sell her life to save his? Had he planned it all along, or was did he succumb to cowardice at the last moment? I let out a disgusted growl.
I wanted to ride out at once. Find him, restore her to her home and tear out his villainous throat. No… better, I would drag him back here, but not to see him languish as a prisoner as I’d intended. I would strive to devise for him a death of which he was truly deserving. I would make him a masterpiece of vengeful justice, and I would afterward gift his pelt to his daughters. This is how an animal deserves to be remembered. I grinned my grotesque grin, for once not minding my gruesome fangs, and set at once for the door.
A courtier met me in the hall, his tone tangibly hesitant.
“Excuse me, your Grace,” he squeaked.
“It’s… the girl, sir.”
“Forget her,” I said. “She’s going home.”
I felt his stare on my back. I could almost see him fidgeting.
“But sir… We don’t think she can.”
He led me down into the hall, where they’d found a chair for her. She was curled under a bearskin, her tiny body barely occupying a chair built for me, but she was shaking hard. I pulled a corner of the skin away to reveal that the rosy skin from my vision had taken on a blue-white pallor. Revenge forgotten, I summoned every bit of gentleness I could muster and carried the fitful sleeping girl, furs and all, upstairs.
The courtiers slipped around and ahead of me. I tried to listen as they spoke to each other and me. They drew a warm bath to bring the color back to her fingers and toes. Hot water could make it worse. She was too far gone. I didn’t bother untangling the furs, but lowered her still wrapped into the tub. Her eyes fluttered briefly, but she never really woke. My eyes never left her pallid face. I had done this to her. Not an hour in my care, and she was nearly dead. The fur fell away, and I saw how little she was wearing. She had walked barefoot into the castle, through heavy snow. I had meant to protect her from her father, and yet she’d just traded one monster for another.
I stayed with her for hours, unseen hands replenishing her bathwater until it was warmer and warmer. She did not wake, but her shaking stopped, and the color started creeping back into her skin. They assured me she would be alright, but she would not be strong enough to face the cold for some time. I could not ask her to go out, even to take her home. I had taken her away from everything she knew, put her in danger, and now I couldn’t even put it right. I stared guiltily at her angelic face.
“Please,” I said, “Please forgive me.”
It would be days before she recovered her strength. At first, I kept close watch over her. As she became more and more coherent, though, she began to look at me with a horror I could not bear to see in her eyes. I withdrew, leaving her to the care of my ladies and watching vigilantly from the hall, where she could not see me. Though I was of course glad to see her regaining her health, I was sad to leave her side, and ashamed to retreat from her fearful gaze.
At first, her muddled state was a blessing. She didn’t gape at the attendants she couldn’t see, because she was already delirious. As lucidity returned, I saw them being more careful around her. They spoke less, and let her do more for herself. I lurked in the shadowy corridor as she started to sit up in bed, as she started to feed herself and started trying to catch people as they brought her food or came to stoke the fire. Of course, it would seem to her as if the fire simply fed itself. Meals would appear beside her when she looked away.
Guilt had eaten at me for every hour of her pain. I vowed, over and over, that I would correct the wrong I’d done her, even if it meant postponing her father’s due punishment. After all, how could he presume to pass judgment if he himself had not made his amends? As she became more and more alert, I wondered why she remained in her room. The castle was open to her, and yet she hid. I was tempted to wait in the hall and listen in on her doings, but I did not wish to be caught there if she were to suddenly emerge, so I contented myself with reports from the courtiers who waited on her. At first she had been too weak to do anything but sleep, and they had struggled even to get her to eat. As she regained her strength and began to move about, she started to investigate the room, pawing through the armoire’s gowns (all selected to fit her) and inspecting each bottle of perfume. She’d sit at a window and stare out at the forest beyond, or pace the room. They said she even played with her food.
I could only assume she was restless, yet she remained cloistered, never stepping out into the rest of the house. It would be improper for me to intrude into her bedroom, but she refused to venture out so I could greet her. It had been nearly a week since she had come to me, and not a single word had passed between us. Something had to be done.
On the sixth day, just after lunch, a knock at the door made Aveline jump nearly out of her skin. She had not been alone for so long in her life, and nothing to do she had been going nearly out of her mind. Who would be knocking? She crossed the room and paused with her hand on the knob.
They sat at the long table, silence hanging heavy between them. The clinking of silver on china echoed in the stillness, and Aveline had never felt so tense. Now and then she stole glances up at her host. She hadn’t noticed at first that it was dressed in human clothes. The embroidered velvet doublet and gold-trimmed coat fit his grotesque shape as well as the gowns left in her room fit her natural one. The effect was offputting. It—he, she supposed—was dressed like a gentleman… a prince. But it was a monster. She dropped her eyes before it noticed her attentions.
The beast started to speak, and then stopped, and the strained silence resumed. Then again, and he choked out,
“Why do you stay in your room?”
Surprised, she looked up to find him returning her gaze, his expression almost sheepish. Was it a trap? What was she meant to do?
“I…” she began fruitlessly, “Is… is there somewhere else I should go?”
“You are welcome to go anywhere you wish,” he said.
“So long as you do not leave the castle,” he added.
Ah. A larger cage.
“And never enter my chambers.”
Not quite so much larger.
“Of course,” she said.
The rest of the dinner passed in the same uncomfortable quiet, after which the beast offered to escort Aveline back to her room. Though she hesitated to accept his company, she knew she’d never find the way back alone, and accepted, although she could not bring herself to take the arm he offered. At first he was quiet, and then he began to tell her about the castle. It was very large, but she should never have difficulty finding her way back to her own room. If she needed anything at all, she need only speak her desire aloud and it would be fulfilled. She thought to herself this could not be, as her only desire was to go home, but she dare not speak it aloud. She had given herself in place of her father, and she could not allow herself to forget.
Outside her door, the monster bowed low and told Aveline that she should not hesitate to ask for anything she wanted during her time here. While she was here, he promised, she was the mistress of this castle, and he her humble servant.
His strange words tumbled over and over through her mind that night, and even as she lay in bed, she considered each fragment of his words. She was the mistress of his castle but could not leave it… and yet he’d said while she was here. If she could not leave and he expected her stay to be temporary… was he planning to kill her? But if he was, why send her gowns and delicacies, perfumes and fine linens and give her the run of his castle? Why not simply kill her?
Perhaps it was a test. He was seeing if she would take his fine gifts, like her father had, and thereby judge her. Perhaps if she was humble and did not indulge, he would think her virtuous and take pity on her. But why would a monster favor virtue? Maybe he would spare her if she did indulge, for he’d think her a kindred spirit to himself. There was no way to be sure. She resolved to remain as she had, in her own room, and avoid the confusion of the territory beyond.
When the morning came, she smelled the soft floral scent of the oils her unseen helpers had dripped into her steaming bath, and pulled herself from beneath the warm covers. A gentle snow fell outside her window as she withdrew into the foggy bathroom, and she sank into the water, feeling mysteriously relaxed.
Though still intimidated by the possibility that the beast was somehow testing her, boredom and curiousity got the better of her. After her bath, she fought the wardrobe until it surrendered a plain, simple dress, something she could move around in. So much of what It had for her was too fancy. Things her sisters would adore, but too frivolous for her tastes. Properly attired, she set out to explore. She wouldn’t take anything, she reasoned. She needn’t even use anything, really. She could just fill her day with wandering around, seeing what there was.
It took only a few minutes to become utterly lost in the maze of hallways and staircases. Though imposing from the outside, she’d never have guessed that the grand interior was so… complicated. At first she simply wandered the halls, enjoying frescoes and carvings, statuary and stained glass windows. The hallways were peppered with doors, but she dare not enter one. By midday it seemed she’d walked for miles, but she continued to find unexplored territory. She found her way up to a parapet way up high, and stood for a few minutes among the gargoyles. She could see the castle grounds, gardens and stables, the strange horseless coach and several more alike; and beyond these, stretching endlessly toward the horizon were the thick woods through which she’d traveled. They expanded for miles around, swallowing the road leading out and somehow, to home. Though breathtaking, the view was not enough to keep her out in the biting cold, and she started down the stairs again.
At the foot of the stairs she realized she was far from her own rooms, and had not the faintest idea how to get back there. She remembered the beast’s strange words to her. All she need do was ask? Feeling foolish she cleared her throat and addressed the empty hall.
“I would like to go back to my room now, and have some lunch,” she announced.
Almost instantly one of the sconces on the wall ahead brightened. She moved toward it and another brightened a little further ahead. One lamp at a time the castle led her up corridors and down staircases, until it brought her back to her own door, with the lintels carved with climbing roses. As she turned the knob she glanced over her shoulder to thank the empty hallway. She felt silly, but something had helped her. Maybe it could hear. For just a moment she thought maybe the light just beside the door brightened, just a little bit.
After lunch Aveline was emboldened. Now that she knew she could get back, she was eager to see how deep the castle labyrinth led. She started off headed down instead of up, easily finding her way down to the ground floor. She found the entry hall where she’d fallen asleep her first night in the castle, although the big plush chair was nowhere to be found. She found the dining room where she’d shared her awkward meal with her strange host, and behind it, the entry to a kitchen.
A kitchen! The kitchen of Aveline’s childhood home was constantly bustling with people. The kitchen runs the house, the nexus not only of food but of laundry, soap- and candle-making, the gathering place for servants and wayward children. There was always something going on in the kitchen of a house this large. Even if there was only the one master, feeding his staff would be an all-day affair. She’d finally see the servants who had, for a week, been covertly sneaking plates and bowls into her room, bringing her everything she could need.
From outside the kitchen Aveline could smell the heavy scents of baking, either from the recently-finished lunch or, just as likely, in anticipation of dinner. But when Aveline opened the door, the kitchen was mysteriously empty… but at once, active. There was bread in the oven and a bright fire in the hearth, ingredients laying half-chopped on the board… it was as if there had been a full staff who had dissolved into thin air as she entered.
She walked curiously into the kitchen, feeling the familiar fullness of the room despite its apparent abandonment. As she moved, she perceived the soft rustle as of clothing brushing against furniture. Once she heard what must have been a bump as someone running lightly into something, and she turned toward the sound. A plate spun momentarily and settled noisily on the counter, but there was nobody there. She stared into the empty air, as if looking harder would reveal those hidden. Then she saw herself as if from the outside, staring into an empty kitchen, looking for ghosts. She sighed at herself, and walked back into the dining room.
Elsewhere on the main floor, Aveline discovered a chapel, every inch enshrouded in ages-old dust. It was odd. Every other part of the castle she’d visited so far was perfectly spotless, but this small room had clearly been neglected for years. Or rather… avoided. Candles stood unlit on the altar, and a bible stood open on the lectern. Out of curiosity, she glanced at the pages. The listing of unclean animals. She smirked despite herself. Of course.
The chapel was coated every inch in beautiful frescoes depicting a handsome family of obvious wealth, each painted as a variety of saints and martyrs. There was a beautiful woman, a man with a hard face, and a very young boy with a strangely serious air. He had his father’s stern posture and his mother’s dark eyes, and the same quiet pain hers held. Aveline wondered if she was seeing some fancy of the artist, or if this documented their true countenances.
The first floor also included a ballroom, its musicians’ gallery sadly vacant, and a long gallery, which Aveline mistook at first for another ballroom. But the deep hall was punctuated with lines of marble columns, drawing the eye down toward a grand dais. On it stood a resplendent thrown, and before the dais were gathered rows of plush chairs on either side of the columns.
She walked timidly toward the empty dais, her mind reeling. This grand castle had once hosted an equally grand court, maybe hundreds strong. Aveline knew the kings who ruled before the Regency had grand and magnificent courts, and where the King went, so would go his court, their retainers and servants, a train a thousand strong. Where they settled for the season, there a bustling city would suddenly spring up, and as they moved on, the ruined farmland would be all they left behind. In the histories, the movements of the royal court were described as one might catalog the spread of a disease or the migrations of devastating locusts.
And here she stood in the heart of one such court, as pristine and regal as when it hosted that long-dead King. She wondered whose court it had been. Feeling almost sacrilegious, she stepped onto the dais to examine the throne for some hint of who once sat there. The throne was carved of dark wood, reliefs of forest flora and all manner of natural beast all along the frame. The cushions were of dark green velvet, with the imperial arms picked out in gold thread. It was undoubtedly royal, but there was nothing to suggest who exactly belonged here. Suddenly she wondered if there was a crypt, if perhaps the mystery majesty might be entombed here. Probably not. The courts did travel, but most of the Kings and Queens of the Imperial period were interred closer to the old capitol.
Then Aveline noticed the draped masses behind the dais: tucked out of view, a strange little hill of draped cloth, like a child’s blanket castle. She climbed down behind the dais and pulled aside the shroud. There, unceremoniously tipped over on their backs, were two more beautiful thrones. The first, as large as the one displayed, was dark wood and gold cushions, the wood carved with delicate roses. The petals stood out with such perilous fragility that Aveline hesitated even to touch them, but there were no thorns on the vines interwoven behind the tender blossoms. The second throne was small, as if to seat a child of only four or five. It was carved with vines and leaves, complimenting both the woods of the king’s throne and the roses of the queen’s.
Aveline wondered why these thrones were hidden. Were the queen and child called away from court? Did they die? Who were they? She wished there was an archive to tell her who they were, how long ago they’d been here. And how had the castle fallen into the beast’s hands? And why did everything look so new? The Regency had been established over a century ago, but the thrones looked as if they’d been built yesterday.
The puzzle of the throne room enticed Aveline’s curiosity. She resolved to investigate further. Maybe one of those labyrinth corridors would lead her to a records room, or the diary of someone who had lived here then. For a moment her captivity was forgotten in the thrill of intrigue.
Our first dinner had been uncomfortable, but I was looking forward to tonight’s nonetheless. They told me she’d been into the kitchen today, just after lunch. I found out what they’d served her and insisted they never prepare it again. It was one of my favorites, but I wouldn’t have her unhappy. I could enjoy it again in the spring, when she went home. I couldn’t imagine being so displeased by the meal that I’d bother going down to the kitchen to complain. I made a mental note to apologize on behalf of my cooks. Once, heads would have rolled. Isolation had taught me restraint with my staff, and practicality kept my temper in check. Where would I hire new?
My valet buttoned a vest for me whose blue silk, he’d long since learned to tell me, brought out the gold in my coat. Still, I heard it every time. But it did look nice. Or as nice as I could look. They knew better than to say that too. For a moment I wished there was a mirror in my chamber, and then I chided myself. How would my vanity be served by knowing every detail of my own disgusting countenance? I forced my attention to the task at hand. I was dressed, and… groomed, for want of a better term. As presentable as I could be. The walk to her door was long. I’d given her a suite as far as possible from my own, moving myself to another part of the castle to allow her the larger suite. Outside her door, I gingerly smoothed my jacked and rapped on the door.
And waited. Nothing.
I knocked again more insistently. There was no answer. Now if she didn’t feel that my hospitality and care through her illness were deserving of some measure of sociability on her part, well, that was her prerogative. But to not only hide in her room, but to ignore my invitation? To insult me without cause? Her, the daughter of that failure of a merchant. I pounded on the door, harder still, threatening to overwhelm the delicate hinges. Still she ignored me. I wanted to break the door down, but even in my rage I realized nothing good could come of that.
I had lost my interest in dinner. Instead I hid in my own suite and fumed for a while, railing to my valet about the girl’s rudeness. At one point I tried to undress myself, getting tangled in my sleeves and becoming so frustrated I tore the coat off and ripped at the vest, rending the silk into scrap. When I calmed I would regret ruining the silk.
Unaware of the tempest raging upstairs, Aveline happily explored the ground floor and, when her hunger outweighed her curiosity, retired to her room for supper. Though she didn’t understand why or how the castle was guiding her around and serving her, she knew that it was, and she tried to remember to say thank you whenever she could. It was odd to thank the empty room, but she always felt this sense of warmth, as if the castle was responding. It was probably her imagination. Some small insanity born of being locked up here with only her captor for company.
Though during the day she’d felt fine, curiously exploring and even enjoying the relative liberty of the castle, tonight she felt trapped, isolated and afraid. She had not heard from nor seen the beast today. Had last night’s strained visit been a one-time ordeal? She did not dare to hope. And yet, for all she knew he might not even be in the castle. He could be out dealing with some pressing matter abroad. Trade, maybe. His fresh food had to come from somewhere. Maybe he was hunting. She shivered.
Aveline felt the creeping paranoia of wondering what this strange beast wanted from her. Her mind fell into the same circular puzzles which plagued her last night. What did he expect? Was she in danger? Would she ever be allowed to leave? She dare not think of escape. He’d just take her father again, or worse. Thoughts of her family suddenly poured over her, and Aveline felt at once like her heart was made of lead, and the heavy coldness of her grief would never fade.
When she woke, her eyes still felt raw with last night’s tears, but the thin sunlight streaming in the open window cheered her. She thought of all the little accidents that brought her here. Her father being delayed in returning home from his most recent travels; his stumbling upon the cursed castle where she was now trapped; his falling in with the thieves who left him to wander in the woods; even the shipwreck itself. She wondered what mistakes had led to the beast being here. Perhaps it was from some royal menagerie, set loose when the nobility all disappeared. Or some ancestor of his… she supposed it likely wasn’t old enough itself.