Later that night, I pace the floor in front of my bed, waiting for Livy to finish getting ready for dinner. The guests from the past few days have all gone home, and the baron and his men left at noon, taking Jacques and Emanuel with them. The priest blessed their journey in the courtyard before they departed on horseback, bound for Foneteley-Comte. Our prayers for safety went with them, and both Livy and her mother shed a few tears as they disappeared from view. I stood beside them like a stone, feeling empty inside.
I’ve been so worried for all of us for so long that my responses to more acute danger are starting to skew. And part of me thinks it might be good that Jacques and Emanuel are with the baron, despite the skirmishes they’ll face. He might grow fond of them on the road, which would make it harder for him to kill them if he ends up murdering me and they refuse to let my death go.
I turn and pace back toward my bedroom door. I’ve already dismissed Henrietta, so there’s no one to see this physical manifestation of my anxiety. Well, no one as far as I know. There could very well be ten people stacked in the passageway to my left, spying on me through cracks and peepholes. The space is certainly large enough for so many. Do they watch me even when I sleep? Change my clothing? Bathe? Use the chamber pot?
I shudder, reach my door, and walk back to the windows. I can’t think about that, or I’ll go mad. Surely even spies have some propriety, some sense of wrong and right. Plus, I doubt the baron cares whether or not I snore.
Instead, I focus on dinner tonight. With a large crowd, it was easy to avoid Henri, but there will be no doing so now. How will he behave? How will I? And will the marquise and Livy still believe our courtship is real when it’s on such close display? They questioned me for what felt like hours after I returned from my walk. I spoke as honestly as I could while relaying my conversation with Henri. As to my feelings and thoughts, those were all lies, and when Livy teasingly asked me what kind of flowers I wanted at our wedding, I thought I might have gone too far. I balked then, saying I didn’t want to jinx anything, and, blessedly, they let the subject go.
Hopefully, I’ll get better at deceiving those I love. The lies weigh heavily on my conscience, like a physical load dragging my shoulders down, and I have to constantly remind myself that I’m doing it for the right reason: to save them. It’s up to me to keep them alive. Like it was on the road. I’m not being self-sacrificing or harboring some sort of martyr syndrome. It’s just that I’m the only one who knows they’re in danger that’s willing to do something about it.
I pause in my pacing, frowning. That might not be right. I don’t understand Henri’s motivations entirely, but I’m almost certain some of them stem from his desire to keep his cousins safe from his father.
I start walking again, cringing when my calf muscles protest. Sitting and sewing for so long did nothing to ease my stiffness. I’d tightened up so much that I nearly toppled when we stood for lunch. The marquise ordered me echinacea tea and a hearty soup, convinced that I was coming down with something. I suppose it’s better than her realizing I’m sore head to toe because I was up all night with Henri.
I cringe again when I realize I just slipped an innuendo into my own thoughts. Up all night with Henri training, I correct. And I’ll do the same again in scant few hours. What will this session bring? More running? I don’t think my battered legs can handle such abuse two nights in a row. Or will we focus on something else? My strength, perhaps? How close will he have to be to instruct me? Close enough to touch, to infect me with his dark essence?
A large part of my current anxiety stems from seeing him unbound and electric again. He’s so much…more at night. If having him close during the day drove me to distraction, I’m worried about what being alone with him night after night will lead to. I’ve never felt like this about a man before, been drawn to someone like I am him. It makes my girlhood crush on Jacques seem laughable. I know a large part of it stems from the mystery he presents, but I can’t deny that another portion is down to his sheer appeal. Nothing Vivienne has said about him has been wrong. He looks like a man should: raw, carnal…virile. Some baser part of me has fixated on that and won’t let it go, no matter how hard I try to get myself to see reason.
He’s something unnatural, I remind myself. God only knows what kind of creature he is, what his inhuman senses point to. Is he an elf? One of the fair folk? His father made their home deep in the wilderness, which would speak to some wild nature that shuns humanity. Lusting after a man who may or may not drink blood or eat infant children to stay alive isn’t healthy. And I’m not exaggerating by thinking these things. My mother’s stories were filled with as much darkness as they were light. Sure, the brave knight might save the princess five out of ten times, but half the time, she was just as likely to be devoured by a dragon, or stolen by a rival suitor, or she killed the knight and ate his heart when he tried to free her, thinking her a damsel in distress when all along she was a wily sorceress in disguise.
I would be an idiot to forget these tales, especially since I seem to be living in one.
A sound pulls me from my thoughts, and I turn to see Livy standing in our shared doorway. Her dress is the color of dusky roses, with cream flowers stitched along the hem. She shakes out her arms as if trying to loosen them up. “I’m so sore.”
I almost laugh. “Me too.”
If only she knew. I can barely even lift my arms anymore. Our rapiers arrived today, and I spent an hour with her in our practice room, doing more instructing than demonstrating because of how stiff I already was. I made sure to give her plenty of helpful feedback and praise her excellent work, unlike another instructor I know.
She steps inside my room, her gaze taking in my dress. “That gown is something. Where did you find it?”
“It was one of Henri’s mother’s,” I tell her.
“Are there any others like it yet to be altered? None of mine are so…” a smile tugs at her lips, “enticing.”
I fight back the urge to pull the low neck of the gown up. Not that I could budge it, as tight as it is. Damn Henrietta for convincing me to put this on. Each dress she’s shoved me into has been more scandalous than the last. At this rate, I’ll be naked at the dinner table in a month.
The door behind me whooshes open, and I turn to see the marquise.
“That’s because you’re not trying to encourage any suitors,” she says, having caught Livy’s last comment. Her gown tonight is black. I’ve seen it before, several days past. Silver thread is stitched throughout, tracing an elaborate pattern over her bodice and down her full skirts. “Ignore Livy’s teasing,” she says. “You look lovely.”
“Thank you,” I manage.
She turns toward her daughter. “Now, if we’re quite finished, Henri is likely wondering where we are.”
We follow her into the hall. Dinner is a subtle affair compared to the pomp of the last two nights, with only Henri, the marquise, Livy, and I in one of the smaller dining rooms. We sit at one end of the still too large table, forgoing propriety so we can speak to each other without yelling. The fare, too, is much simpler than the past nights, and I fill my stomach with orange duck, trout, and escarole.
I shouldn’t have worried about Henri’s behavior. He remains polite throughout, speaking easily to the marquise and Livy. I refrain from talking too much, intent on studying him. I have to admit that if I didn’t know it was an act, I would think him the epitome of the country gentleman. He’s deferential to his matronly cousin, teasing to his younger one, and kind to me. I don’t buy it for a second. I’ve seen how he stalks through the night. I feel his low energy creeping out, thrumming against my exposed skin. Every now and then, when Livy and Vivienne turn toward each other to speak, and no one but me will see him, he glances my way, and I swear I can feel his regard like a physical touch.
What must be going on behind those eyes? I wonder. What thoughts fill his head? Is any of this real? Does he feel some slight affection for his relatives, or are his motivations completely inhuman, driven by something I can’t comprehend?
We linger after we finish our food. I sip my wine, careful not to overindulge as the marquise tells a story of King Louis’ younger days. It’s hard to believe our late monarch was an awkward, shy boy before taking the throne.
An hour and a half later, I’m pacing by my fireplace again, the door between mine and Livy’s rooms firmly shut. I told her earlier that I didn’t feel the need to keep it open anymore. There’s no reason to since we’re safe. It served the dual purpose of further reassuring her and keeping her from getting out of bed if she woke up and found it suddenly shut in the middle of the night.
I should be trying to catch up on sleep before I’m dragged out of here by Mallory, but I can’t. My mind is a battleground. I’m so wound up that I discard my earlier resolution to crawl into bed and pull the curtains shut around me while I… Well. There’s no need for any of that now. The last traces of my desire have long since fled. It’s hard to be aroused when you’re so preoccupied with what the night, the next week, the next month might bring. And I really don’t think it wise to pleasure myself to the thought of a man who might be some horrid dark creature wearing the guise of a human. I’ll never forget that one story my mother told where the handsome prince shed his skin once he was wed to the beautiful princess and revealed himself as a goblin, squat, twisted, warty, and hungry for her flesh. And not in a good way.
I don’t pace for long, maybe another five minutes, before I hear a noise and turn to see Mallory crawl out from under the secret panel. At least I won’t have to wake with her hand over my mouth again.
She doesn’t look surprised to see me awake. “Are you ready?”
I nod and pick my candle up. She leads me back through the doorway. I don’t bother to ask her what Henri has planned for me tonight. She might not know, and even if she did, she probably wouldn’t answer.
We reach the top of the stairs, and she stops dead in front of me, head canted sideways as if she can hear something I can’t.
“Mallory?” I ask.
She swears and wheels around, grabbing my arm and dragging me inside the nearest doorway. In a heartbeat, she’s blown out both of our candles, dropping us into pitch-blackness.
Dread opens like a pit in my stomach. “What’s happening? Is someone –”
She hisses and slaps a hand over my mouth, spinning me toward her, so my back is pressed to her chest. Her other arm bands around me, trapping both of mine to my sides. I try to fight her off – she’s smaller than me, and it should be easy – but it’s like an iron vice has clamped over my face, and despite my struggle, the arm wrapped around me like a snake only tightens. How is she so strong?
“Shut up,” she whispers, low and vicious.
I stop fighting her. Between the tension in her body and that warning note in her voice, something is truly wrong here. I stand stock-still, breathing hard through my nose, and at first, I don’t hear anything. It’s only when my pulse slows that I catch a low whuff from outside.
Fear curls its fingers around my heart. That sound did not come from a human throat.
There’s another whuff, whuff, like whatever is out there is dragging in deep breaths, and it reminds me of the way the baron drank in my scent like he could taste my terror on his tongue. Footsteps echo down the hall, but they’re…off. Instead of one-two, like when a human walks, I hear one-two-three-four, one-two-three-four. The sounds are deep, like those feet are holding up a massive weight, and each footfall is followed by a scrape. The noise niggles at my subconscious until it clicks. We had hunting dogs growing up, and it sounds a little like their nails on the hardwood floors, only louder and much more threatening. Does the thing in the hall have…claws?
I thought the baron was the most terrifying creature inside the chateau, but clearly, I was wrong. What the hell is outside this door? I glance at the bottom of it. Soft candlelight spills in through the crack, but then a shadow slides from one side to the other as the creature comes to a stop on the other side of the door. I go perfectly still, not even breathing. A low, shuddering rumble that’s too deep to be a growl reverberates through the hallway and into our room. All the hair on my arms stands on end.
“Oh, would you piss off?” Mallory bites out. “You’re being a stupid prick, and you know it.”
Another huff, this one sounding…amused? And then the shadow disappears as whatever’s out there wanders off. We stay where we are for several long moments. I strain my ears until the last hint of its presence disappears, but when I go to pull away, Mallory holds me fast, hand still clamped over my mouth. I don’t even consider fighting her this time. It’s clear she’s stronger than me, and her ears are sharper than mine. If she thinks it’s not safe yet, then it isn’t.
Finally, she releases me, yanking the door open while I’m still trying to get my bearings. Candlelight strikes her face, and for once, she isn’t grinning. She looks livid.
“What was that?” I ask, unable to hide the tremble in my voice. My whole body is shaking with unspent adrenaline.
She shoots me a dark look. “You don’t want to know.”
“But it went away when you told it to, so clearly, it’s intelligent? Was it a large dog or something? A lion?” I’ve heard of aristocrats keeping the big cats as pets, though I always thought them foolish for doing so.
Her expression hardens. “I said, you don’t want to know.”
She doesn’t answer any of my other questions once we reach the dressing room, flat out ignoring me as she helps me don a freshly laundered set of blacks. Afterward, she hands me a traveling cloak, and I pull it on, still caught in the icy grip of fear.
I enter the training room to find the sconces lit. She, of course, leaves me to face Henri alone. I keep close to the door, looking around, remembering Henri’s wraithlike appearance the night before but more concerned there might be more than one creature stalking the chateau. I don’t see anything amiss on my first pass of the room. Where’s Henri?
Something catches the corner of my eye, and I turn to see one of the dangling ropes twitching. I frown at it, wondering what on earth could be causing it to spin and jerk like that. It’s not like there’s a breeze in here. I follow the cord up to the rafters and finally glimpse my instructor. He’s lowering himself down it, one hand over another. I can’t imagine the strength it takes for something like that, but he makes it look easy.
He lets go of the rope ten feet off the ground and hits the floor with a barely-audible thud before rising to his full height. In the candlelight, his eyes are black and reflective, and I could swear he looms larger than when I saw him just a few hours ago.
“Good evening,” he says, stalking toward me.
“Good evening.” I shoot a glance behind me toward the hall. “There was something in the corridor a moment ago.”
His eyes narrow as he looks me over. “Oh?”
“Something…I don’t know what. Not human? Mallory dragged me into a room before I could see it.”
He nods. “It won’t happen again.” Instead of pausing in front of me, he strides right past. “Come. We’re taking an excursion tonight.”
I turn to track him as he walks to the other side of the room. “But what was it?”
“You don’t want to know,” he calls over his shoulder.
I clench my hands into fists and follow after him. Damn him. Damn Mallory. Damn everyone in this cursed place! Will no one ever give me a straight answer?
We reach a door I didn’t notice last night, and he opens it and slips through. It leads to another flight of stairs, this one curving down into oblivion. There are candles lit in the stairwell, but only one per floor, and many of the steps are shadowed. Henri slips down them with unnerving ease. I follow him less gracefully, using the railings on either side of me and being overly careful where I place my feet. My knees shake the entire time, and once or twice, he pauses and turns as if ready to catch me if I fall.
“I’m fine,” I assure him, but from the look on his face, he doesn’t believe the lie.
We descend four stories, ending in front of a plain, heavy wooden door. He motions for me to wait and slips through it ahead of me. A few minutes pass before he returns.
“Where are we going?” I ask him.
“To the northern edge of the forest.”
I frown. That’s miles away. “What if Livy wakes up? I’ll never get back in time.” He said not to argue with him, but this seems like a critical lapse in planning.
He shakes his head and holds the door open for me. “She won’t. I had laudanum put into her water.”
I blink. “You drugged her?”
“Yes,” he says simply.
Heat crawls up my cheeks, but for once, it’s anger and not embarrassment causing me to flush. He’s more like his father than I first thought. And yet…I can see the wisdom in such a move. Is it ethical? Absolutely not. But it will keep Livy from discovering me gone and asking awkward questions I wouldn’t be able to answer.
I stride past Henri into the night. Maybe I’m more like the baron than I first thought. How quickly the lines of right and wrong have started to blur. The baron seems to be a man willing to do anything to get what he wants. Am I so different from him if I would condone almost anything to keep Livy safe?
I don’t know, and that scares me as much as anything else has so far. What if I manage to evade marriage and survive my soldiering, only to lose a piece of my soul in the process? I don’t want to be like the baron. I want light and laughter and love in my life, not all this darkness and deception.
A motion catches the corner of my eye. There, standing near the side of the chateau is a large, hooded form holding the reins of two horses. One catches sight of us and whickers softly into the night. Neither has a side-saddle. Without my usual skirts, I can ride astride, as I did when I was younger.
Henri strides toward them, and I follow in his wake, trying to ignore the odd backlash of his energy. The way it clings to my limbs makes me want to pick up my pace and keep up with him. We reach the hooded figure, and I don’t even try to glimpse their face, not wanting to know who else I have to fear inside the chateau. I move to the shorter of the horses, assuming it will be mine as the other is a massive black stallion that seems restless and irritable.
“I’ll help you up,” Henri says.
I slide my booted foot into the stirrup and haul myself into my saddle before he reaches me. My shoulder twinges at the effort and my entire body lets out an almost audible ow of protest, but it’s worth it to keep his hands off my body.
He pauses beside my horse for a moment, not saying anything as he looks up at me. Is he angry again? Why? Because I didn’t let him touch me? Didn’t do what he wanted?
His eyes flash in the torchlight before he turns away. My horse whinnies and tries to balk as he passes around her head, and I pet her neck soothingly, telling her with my touch that her fear is warranted. I think I’m beginning to understand something. Henri’s eyes seem to flash in conjunction with heightened emotion, like any spike of feeling lessens his control over the mask of humanity he wears. Interesting. Is the same true for everyone else like him? I’ll have to start irritating Mallory more to test the theory. Should be easy enough.
Henri pulls himself into his saddle with liquid grace, and his horse doesn’t even blink, clearly used to its odd master. He turns the stallion toward the road and taps its sides with his heels. I nudge the mare forward. She balks for a second before following him, not that I blame her. It’s dark out here, and that man is frightening.
I glance back at the chateau as we leave it, pulling the hood of my cloak up and praying no one can see us. Some part of me feels like I should have demanded a chaperone, but what would be the point? I’m out in the middle of the night with a man I’m not related to. Not even the most matronly chaperone on earth could make this situation acceptable in the eyes of my peers. I’ll just have to trust that the shadows obscure us enough to avoid detection, but really, with all the guests long since departed, who do I even need to worry about right now? Livy is deep in the dreamless sleep of the drugged, and I doubt the marquise is up so late. Jacques and Emanuel are gone, with most of the men we brought from Morcenx with them, and almost everyone else in this chateau belongs to the baron.
I cast my eyes to his son, who sits atop his horse like he was born in the saddle. My mare has no desire to get anywhere near him, and I agree with her, so we loiter ten paces back. The sky is cloudless overhead, the nearly full moon shining on us with pearlescent light. It’s enough to see by, and my horse easily picks her way down the road, shifting sideways to avoid small potholes or ruts in the dirt. I huddle in my cloak. The air is cold, and the wind blowing in from the northwest adds a bitter edge to it that speaks of shifting seasons.
We walk in silence until the chateau disappears behind us, swallowed up by the forest. The trees loom large in the darkness, throwing long shadows over the road. I shudder and try not to think of that dream I had all those weeks ago, but it’s hard not to fixate on all the similarities. I’m on a dirt road in the middle of the night, surrounded by wilderness with only a single village inside of it. The man in front of me has the flashing eyes of an animal. That night on the balcony, when he spoke my name in that growling baritone, I was terrified of him. Not because his eyes flashed, not because he was too close to me, and we were alone, but because I’d heard him speak it like that before.
In my dream. Just before he dragged me up off the dirt road and carried me into a wolf-infested forest.
Copyright © 2022 by Navessa Allen
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.