Excerpt: Fairytales Slashed: Volume 4
The Fairy’s Assistant by Sasha L. Miller
Hayden hesitated briefly, nearly tripping when someone shoved him from behind. The market was busy, and no one liked people who moved slowly or stopped in the middle of the crowded pathways. Hayden shuffled off to the left, taking shelter behind a throng of people vying for deals on fresh fish.
“Are you sure?” Hayden asked, keeping his voice low. It was lost in the noise of the market, but he knew Lily would hear him. The chest pocket on his shirt where Lily was hidden ruffled vigorously, and Hayden laughed quietly. He broke away from the crowd around the fishmonger’s stall, ignoring the man’s shouted attempts to interest him in the day’s catch.
The girl Lily had picked was obviously a servant. The dress she wore was simple but neat; Hayden could spot a few nondescript patches near the hem of the skirt, so she didn’t work for an overly rich household. She carried a basket, but had to have been getting some of her purchases delivered since she visited two stalls and didn’t do more than haggle and pay.
She worked for a medium-sized household, Hayden decided. A larger place would have had her better-dressed, and a smaller wouldn’t have required delivery. The question was: what household, and could Hayden contrive a way to join it? He could work from the outside if he had to, but it was much more difficult and raised suspicions much more quickly.
It took the girl another hour of shopping before she finally headed out of the market, leaving through the northern gate. Hayden followed behind her, keeping a fair distance to prevent attracting her attention. He looked like just another servant, he knew: his clothes were good quality, but slightly worn; his hair was unfashionably short; and he wore solid, scuffed boots instead of the less-sturdy town shoes the richer merchants and noblemen favored.
The girl was easy to follow. Her bright gold hair gleamed in the sunlight, and the scarf she wore to keep it out of her face didn’t cover nearly enough of the rich color to prevent Hayden’s being able to spot her from a street length away.
They were headed firmly into the upper class section of the city. Far enough from the market and poorer sections of the city to keep the delicate sensibilities of the nobles happy, but close enough that they could send their servants to fetch any and everything they wanted. This part of town was also closer to the huge palace that loomed imperiously over the city.
Hayden glanced over the rows of townhouses, a little anxious at being so close to the palace. They wouldn’t be looking for mages this close to the palace, Hayden reassured himself. Lily rustled impatiently in his jacket, and Hayden snapped his gaze back to the road before him just in time to see the girl leave the road to approach one of the dozen townhouses on this street. They were all identical to one another, and Hayden quickly committed to memory the name and number hanging from the plaque in front of the house: 7412 Fairburn.
Continuing down the street, Hayden passed the house in question, giving it a cursory glance before walking on. Fairburn … he hadn’t heard that name, but that meant absolutely nothing. There were far too many minor noble families around for him to keep track of, especially given how much he travelled. He’d have to ask around, see if the Fairburns were looking for help.
Turning the corner, Hayden hesitated mid-step, stumbling to a stop when he caught sight of a familiar face a few hundred yards down the road. It couldn’t be—Hayden hadn’t seen the knight since he and Lily had helped a young duke rescue his betrothed from a sleeping curse in Midiera a few months before.
Hayden hadn’t thought knights travelled much—weren’t they assigned to a certain part of the country to protect and serve? The knight was getting closer, and he continued to bear more than a passing resemblance to the knight who had tried to declare him a mage before.
Now was not the time to take the chance it was the same man, Hayden decided. He turned and headed back down the Fairburns’ street, hoping the knight—if he was indeed the same knight—wouldn’t find the about-face strange or worthy of investigating. Hayden hurried down the street, wishing he were closer to the markets or someplace he’d managed to get familiar with. He could make a break for it and hide more easily if it came to that.
Hayden made it halfway down the street before his curiosity got the better of him, and he glanced back down the street. The knight was following him, and worse, the knight looked suspicious of him, and, when Hayden met his eyes, shouted, “You there, stop!”
Definitely the same knight. Hayden cursed his luck, debating briefly before quickly settling on making a run for it. He couldn’t really afford to be caught; Lily didn’t give up her targets, and disappearing would be easier than breaking out of jail and then trying to skulk around the noble quarters. Breaking into a sprint, Hayden ducked his head and raced for the end of the street. He wasn’t a knight, but he had something of a head start. If he could stay ahead of the knight for a block or two, he could find a place to hide away in until the knight gave up and left.
He could hear the loud, clomping steps of the knight behind him—getting closer, unfortunately—and Hayden put on a burst of speed, making a wide turn around the fast-approaching corner. He barely missed running into an older woman bearing a large basket. She stumbled back, obviously surprised, but Hayden didn’t give her a second glance, just took off for the cluster of townhouses at the end of the street.
Unlike the street on which the Fairburns resided, these houses were cheaper and built closer together. They had smaller yards and much less space between them. If Hayden were lucky, he could find a bolt hole—
Behind him, the knight’s steps suddenly stopped and shouting started up, so likely the knight hadn’t dodged the woman when he’d turned the corner. Stifling a grin, Hayden kept running, not trusting that to stop the knight for very long. He’d been far too determined to catch Hayden before, and Hayden highly doubted he’d give up easily now.
He reached the cluster of townhouses then, running straight past the first one and glancing down the alley between it and its neighbor. He was surprised to find no one in sight, but didn’t question it, just sprinted up the gentle slope and into the alleyway between the houses. The alleyway was wide enough to accommodate a narrow carriage, but it was instead filled with bins of rubbish and scraps.
Hayden still couldn’t hear the knight coming, but that didn’t do anything to quell his sense of urgency. He covered the distance to the rubbish bins quickly, wrinkling his nose at the smell. He dropped down behind the largest and took a deep breath, instantly regretting it.
“Lily, please?” Hayden asked, the words rushed and breathless. Lily didn’t like to use her magic on him, but she would to keep her safety and to keep him available to help her. The front pocket of Hayden’s shirt trembled slightly, and then the cool icy tingle of Lily’s magic raced along his skin, fading away at the tips of his toes, fingers, and the tops of his ears.
Hayden took another deep breath and nearly choked on the smell again. He froze in the next second, smell forgotten, when he heard the sound of boots clicking against the cobblestones—he could even hear the faint jingle of the knight’s spurs. Lily’s spell undoubtedly hid him from sight, but he didn’t know whether it extended to sound and movement, so Hayden stayed as still as he could and breathed shallowly. It was difficult not to gasp for air; his lungs were still burning from his short run.
The knight approached the bin that Hayden was hiding behind, his steps slow and measured. With each step his spurs got louder, more ominous, and Hayden held his breath when the knight finally paced into view. His brow was furrowed in anger and confusion, and Hayden nearly passed out in relief when the knight’s eyes passed right over him, and he continued stalking down the alleyway.
Hayden watched the knight closely; he made it to the end of the alley between the two houses and scanned the yard—likely stable, too, though Hayden doubted it was used if this pathway was blocked off. The knight cursed, swearing fluidly under his breath, and Hayden started breathing again.
The knight turned and made his way back through the alleyway, pausing at each of the larger rubbish bins to peek inside. From the expression on his face, he found the smell no more pleasant than Hayden did. Hayden didn’t take a deep breath until the knight finally left the alley, but he still didn’t move. If he knew anything about this knight, he’d be standing at the far end of the alley, watching for anything suspicious.
Hayden would wait a while then disappear out the back end of the alley. He could cut across a few yards and head back to the market district. Hayden risked a bit of movement to cover his mouth and nose with his hand. It didn’t do much to block out the smell, but hopefully he wouldn’t have to suffer it too long.
A day later, after a very thorough bath and several discreet inquiries, Hayden stood in the stables of the Fairburn residence, weathering a suspicious look from the stable master.
“You sure you’re okay with the terms?” the stable master—Jimmie, if Hayden had understood his thick grumbling voice correctly—asked gruffly. He was less than impressed with Hayden, to judge by the look he was currently leveling in Hayden’s direction, but Hayden didn’t mind. He knew he wasn’t much to look at, but he also knew he was a good worker, and he’d done stables plenty of times before.
“Yes, sir,” Hayden said, glancing around the stable as though weighing how much work it would take. “I don’t plan to be in town long. I just need a place to stay. Earning a bit of coin along the way doesn’t break my heart.”
“How long?” Jimmie asked, some of the suspicion fading from his face. He was right to be suspicious, Hayden thought. The Fairburns were asking for a lot of work for a place to sleep, two meals a day, and half a silver a week.
“Til the end of the summer,” Hayden answered easily, though if Lily’s previous targets were anything to go by, probably sooner. “My sister’s up at that university across town. She’s done then, and we’ll be heading home.”
Jimmie nodded, apparently finding that acceptable. “You good with sleeping in the loft?”
“Sure,” Hayden said, shifting his knapsack higher on his shoulder. “Slept in worse places.”
“Go drop your bag, then,” Jimmie rumbled. The fierce scowl he’d been sporting the entire conversation didn’t change a whit. “Then you can get a start on the stalls. They need a good mucking.”
Hayden nodded, moving towards the ladder. Jimmie grumbled something else under his breath, heaving a sigh. Then he pushed away from the wall he’d been leaning against and headed towards the entrance to the stables. He limped heavily, which was likely the reason the Fairburns were looking for extra help, though it looked to be an old injury, not a new one.
He was probably off to inform the Fairburns of him, Hayden decided, climbing the ladder. He tossed his bag off towards the far side of the piles of hay. Lily popped out of his pocket, and Hayden obligingly gave her a boost towards the rafters. She flew off, her wings sparkling in the sunlight that peeked through the gaps in the ceiling.
Climbing back down the ladder, Hayden set to work. He was no stranger to stable work—it was his usual entry into a household. Whenever Lily moved onto a new person, he’d likely end up doing stable work for the rest of his life. Hayden wasn’t sure he’d mind that much; there was something comforting in the familiar work, though he certainly enjoyed travelling with Lily.
Hayden fell into the tasks of the stable easily. There were two horses: a nervous stallion that had obviously been purchased for looks, and a complacent mare that had no qualms with Hayden moving her to get her stall mucked out. It took a while to get the stalls into shape, but Hayden was just finishing up when Jimmie returned. He was followed by a tall, slender, and well-dressed young man, and Hayden would bet a month’s meager salary on that man’s being the head of the Fairburn household, here to shake up the new servant.
Hayden brushed ineffectively at the front of his dirty shirt, but there really wasn’t anything to do for it. He doubted he’d make a good impression on Lord Fairburn unless he were wearing much more expensive clothing and he hadn’t just finished mucking out the stables. As it was, Lord Fairburn was wearing a sneer that only grew ever more apparent as he and Jimmie reached the wide doorway of the stable.
“This is who you hired?” The condescension didn’t seem to faze Jimmie; he simply grunted an affirmative.
“He’s done a good enough job on the stalls,” Jimmie spoke up after a moment, staring into the depths of the stable. Lord Fairburn continued to stare contemptuously at Hayden, but Hayden just stared blankly back. There was no sense antagonizing Fairburn, not if he wanted to keep his position.
“I see,” Fairburn said after a long moment. He cast a cool eye over the fresh straw lining the bottom of the horses’ stalls. He didn’t seem impressed, but that didn’t surprise Hayden. Likely the man was trying to browbeat Hayden into accepting a cheaper wage, despite the already low wages. “Where was your last position?”
“Southerly, sir,” Hayden replied promptly. “A place called the Green Cow.”
“An inn,” Fairburn said, wrinkling his nose in distaste. Hayden refrained from rolling his eyes; tending horses in an inn was much more difficult than tending two horses in a city townhouse. “James says you’re leaving the city at the end of the summer.”
“Yes, sir,” Hayden said, not elaborating. His fabricated motives, though they’d been good enough to allay Jimmie’s suspicions, wouldn’t hold any sway with Lord Fairburn.
“Tell me why I should hire a worker who does barely passable work and won’t even be here for more than three months,” Fairburn said, punctuating the order with a well-practiced look down his nose.
“You’re not paying enough to get a long-term worker,” Hayden said, even though it was quite possible that back-talk would lose him any chance he had at getting the position. Still, it would have seemed odd for him to back down; even a short-term worker could find other work in the city.
Jimmie grunted, but he didn’t say anything further than that, and Hayden didn’t know him well enough to interpret that. Fairburn didn’t reply immediately, and he completely ignored Jimmie’s contribution. He frowned, still looking imperious, and Hayden waited tensely, hoping this didn’t backfire.
Fairburn really could have been handsome, Hayden noted, if he could be bothered to smile. As it was, the scowl on his face darkened his features and gave him a rather sour look. It aged him and made him look rather unpleasant to be around as well. Not that Hayden thought that was far from the truth.
“You have a week to prove you’re worth keeping for the summer,” Fairburn finally said, and Hayden nodded sharply, trying hard to not show his relief. “A word of caution, though,” Fairburn said, tilting his head back to the haughty angle that allowed him to look down his nose at Hayden. “Take that tone with me again, and I’ll have you tossed out on your nose faster than you can finish your sentence.”
“Yes, sir,” Hayden said dutifully, hoping whatever Lily had in mind for the servant girl really stuck in Lord Fairburn’s craw.
Fairburn stared at him coldly for a moment before turning sharply on his heel and heading back towards the house. He was obviously going for a dramatic exit, but Hayden didn’t care enough to watch it. Instead, he turned to Jimmie expectantly. “A trial?”
“Don’t let it worry you,” Jimmie said dismissively, blinking ponderously. “They do that to everyone. Hell, the only ones who aren’t on ‘trial’ are the indentureds.”
“Oh,” Hayden said, wondering which the servant girl was—indentured servant or hired help. “Is what’s-his-face going to do the whole stick up his ass routine every week?”
Jimmie snorted out a laugh as Hayden had hoped he would. “Nah, they’ll ignore you now unless you get in their way, but they won’t take you off trial. What’s-his-face is Corwin Fairburn, but he’s not the one you need to look out for. His mother’s the one who really runs things. He picked up his stick-up-the-ass routine from her.”
“Wonderful,” Hayden said, filing that away. “Anyone else in this family I should know about?”
“Darlene’s the sister. You’ll hear her shrieking, but she doesn’t come out here,” Jimmie said. He eyed Hayden thoughtfully before abruptly pushing away from the stable wall he was leaning against. “Go on and visit the kitchen. They’ll give you a bite to eat. When you’re done, do whatever they need you to do.”
Hayden nodded, but Jimmie wasn’t paying him any mind, already meandering on his bum leg towards the back of the stable. A small doorway led to an office of sorts. Hayden could see a desk and chair through the doorway.
Stepping out of the stables, Hayden blinked at the bright sun, taking a moment to orient himself. Corwin had headed to a door on the right; it was painted bright red and had carved marble steps leading up to it. That would be the main back entrance, Hayden thought, and he’d get an earful if he tried to use it. Casing around, Hayden spotted another doorway, plain and unremarkable, off to the left. The door was wide open, likely to let the heat of the cooking fires out of the confines of the kitchen.
Hayden approached slowly, feeling every bit of grime and sweat he’d accrued working in the stables. There was a pump, Hayden noted, on the far side of the doorway to the kitchen, and he made for it, planning to at least rinse his hands clean before getting the promised meal. He’d barely set his hands on the sun-warmed handle, though, when the servant girl from the market all but tumbled out of the kitchen.
She stopped short when she saw him, her mouth forming an O of surprise briefly. The expression cleared quickly though, and she asked, “You’re the new stable hand, yes?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Hayden said, glancing at the bucket she held. “I’m Hayden.”
“Renee,” she replied absently, glancing over her shoulder when someone shouted from the kitchen.
“Would you like me to pump that for you?” Hayden offered, because it seemed only polite. Renee looked startled, but then smiled.
“That would be wonderful, thank you,” Renee said, setting the bucket into a well-worn groove in the muddy ground below the pump. “Please just bring it in when it’s three-fourths full.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Hayden said, smiling at her because he couldn’t not. Her smile was happy and infectious, and it was impossible not to smile back. Renee disappeared back into the kitchen, her skirt whirling behind her, and Hayden set to pumping water. He hadn’t worked this hard in a while; hopefully he wouldn’t be too sore the next day. His first impression of Renee was unsurprising. She seemed sweet and kind. No doubt she was being sorely taken advantage of by the Fairburns, but that was obviously not uncommon for servants in this household. There had to be something else, too, something that Hayden didn’t know yet. Lily’s targets were never as simple as they appeared to be. Hayden dismissed it for the moment, focusing instead on his current task. The whole of it would come out eventually; it always did.
Taking the bucket inside, Hayden nearly dropped it in surprise. The kitchen was huge, as was fitting for a townhouse where parties were likely thrown on a regular basis. For all that space, however, there were only three workers: Renee and two other, older women who looked as though they should have been at home playing with grandchildren instead of working.
“You’ll be wanting something—” Renee began, wiping her hands on the already heavily stained apron that covered the skirt of her dress.
“I can wait,” Hayden said easily. He’d had a late breakfast, after all, and waiting a little longer for lunch wouldn’t hurt him. “I’m not much good for delicate work, but I can do chopping or dishes.”
Renee smiled again, bright and pleased, and Hayden flushed. Surely he wasn’t doing anything that spectacularly wonderful. She didn’t question him, just took the bucket of water and pointed him in the direction of the sink.
“Dishes, please,” she directed. Hayden went, eyeing the stack of dishes with resignation. Dishes were his least favorite chore. He’d do it though, and with no complaint, if only because Renee didn’t seem to have high expectations of him, and it was a way to get her to trust him more quickly.
He spent the next few hours washing plates and glassware and chopping vegetables and getting platters from high shelves and anything else that Renee hastily bid him to do around the kitchen. It was mostly quiet as they worked, all four of them too busy to do much more than trade polite, work-related inquiries. The older ladies were Bernie, short for Bernadette, and Catherine. They were pleasant enough and seemed to have a good deal of respect for Renee.
Hayden also picked up that the hustle wasn’t normal, but that a last minute lunch party had been thrown by the Lady Sheridan Fairburn, mother to Corwin and Darlene. If Bernie’s grumbles as she pieced together quick turnovers were to be believed, it wasn’t the first time, and it likely wouldn’t be the last time.
“Here you are,” Renee said, passing him a plate topped with pastries, cuts of cheese and meat, and a rather large pickle. Better fare than he’d expected to receive as a stable hand, but he wasn’t going to protest.
“Thanks,” Hayden said, setting down the pot he’d been scrubbing. It sank back into the sink, and Hayden hastily dried his hands on the front of his pants before taking the plate from her. “Will you need help for dinner?”
“No, dinner should be low key,” Renee said, shaking a loose lock of golden hair from her face. “I do appreciate you helping us out with lunch, though.”
“Jimmie said I was to do what you wanted me to do,” Hayden said. “Seemed simpler to do that first then worry about eating.”
Renee smiled, and Hayden really liked when she did that. It made her seem younger, happier, and it seemed to lift some of the sorrow lurking in her eyes. “Well, I appreciate that,” Renee said, gesturing for him to join Bernie and Catherine at the far table. “Help yourself if you’re still hungry after that bit.”
“You’re not eating?” Hayden asked, frowning. Renee had done more running around than he had; surely she was hungry.
“Later,” Renee reassured him, glancing towards the doorway that led to the rest of the house. Hayden followed her gaze, finding the footman who’d carried dishes between the kitchen and dining room standing there. He gestured at Renee, and she sighed so softly that Hayden almost didn’t hear her. She untied her apron and dropped it on the nearest counter before giving Hayden a last smile and crossing the kitchen.
Hayden watched her go for a moment before taking his plate over to join Bernie and Catherine. Bernie poured him a drink from the pitcher on the table as he approached—mead, by the color of it. Hayden nodded his thanks, sitting down and taking a bit of cheese.
He was being studied. Bernie was blatantly eyeing him, not bothering to hide her curiosity. Catherine was being slightly more subtle, actually eating her meal instead of ignoring it in favor of staring at him. Hayden refrained from grinning—curious old ladies were a staple in every household.
“Taken a fancy to our Miss Renee, have you?” Bernie finally asked, just as Hayden took a swallow of the mead she’d poured him. Hayden choked, startled. He hadn’t been expecting that question yet, though it always, inevitably came up. He also would bet real money she’d waited until he’d drunk something to ask. Hayden coughed, trying not to stutter out a denial immediately.
“What makes you say that?” Hayden asked, raspy and hoarse. He cleared his throat and took another sip of the mead, unsurprised when Bernie exchanged a knowing look with Catherine.
“You worked your fool ass off to impress her,” Catherine said, her voice dry and bitter. Between the voice and the stains on her fingers and teeth, Hayden had her pegged as a white weed smoker, though he highly doubted she supported that habit any longer.
“I like to work,” Hayden said, shrugging and taking a large bite of his pickle. It crunched impressively and it was seasoned perfectly. Hayden savored it, in no hurry to return to dodging the old ladies’ questions.
“No one likes dishes,” Bernie said, wrinkling her already wrinkled nose at him.
“I did as I was told,” Hayden said, shrugging. He smiled briefly, adding, “So I shouldn’t wash dishes next time? That’s suspicious?”
“Only if you’ve got something to hide,” Catherine said smartly, grinning widely.
“So I can do dishes,” Hayden interpreted then changed the subject abruptly. “What was with the summons?”
Bernie and Catherine exchanged another look, this one more serious. Bernie shrugged, but Catherine scowled, shaking her head. They stared each other down, and Hayden let them, slowly making his way through the cheese and meat on his plate.
“Fine, but you’re responsible,” Catherine rasped, looking none too pleased with the outcome of the silent conversation.
“She won’t care,” Bernie said dismissively. “He’s sweet on her anyway, so it’s best if he knows what he’s getting into.”
Catherine snorted, obviously not agreeing. Catherine didn’t protest any further, though, simply picked at the bits of pastry on her plate. Hayden didn’t deny the assertion that he was enamored of Renee, now that it was working in his favor to get him information. Bernie leaned across the table, gesturing Hayden close. Hayden obliged, leaning around his plate.
“Lady Sheridan married Renee’s father after her mother passed,” Bernie whispered loudly, though there was no one to overhear them. “He died five years back and left everything to her.”
“She didn’t claim Renee?” Hayden hazarded, nearly rolling his eyes because Lily really did like to pick the dramatic stories.
“Nope,” Catherine said, apparently forgetting she was against sharing this gossip. “More’s the pity, you ask me. Renee is ten times nicer and prettier than that shrew of a daughter Lady Sheridan has.”
“Lady Harridan doesn’t like nice,” Bernie said, scoffing. “And the way she dresses, she wouldn’t know pretty if it came up to her on the street and smacked her in the face.”
Hayden snorted, hoping he could avoid Lady Sheridan and her daughter for as long as possible. Spoiled, holier-than-thou, and stuck-up nobility were not his cup of tea. Bernie grinned, obviously pleased she’d amused him. She looked ready to say something else, but before she could, there was a clatter of footsteps from the doorway.
He glanced over his shoulder, unsurprised to see Renee entering the room. She seemed slightly affected by whatever the summons had entailed; her hair was slightly askew when it hadn’t been before.
“Hayden, would you mind accompanying me to the market in the morning?” Renee asked, tidying up the counter nearest her. “We’re having more guests tomorrow for lunch, and Lady Sheridan requested several things that I can’t get delivered on time.”
“Of course she did,” Bernie mumbled, and neither she nor Catherine looked thrilled with the idea of throwing another lunch party.
“As long as Jimmie doesn’t want me doing anything,” Hayden agreed, stifling a bit of unease. He couldn’t stay hidden in this house forever, however, and surely the knight would have given up on his search by now.
“I’m sure he’ll have no problem with it, but I’ll check with him to be sure,” Renee said, then tensed when one of the bells hanging in the corner rang loudly. There were a half dozen of them, varying in size, shape, and color. Squaring her shoulders, Renee forced a smile. “If you’ll excuse me.”
Hayden waited until she was gone again before turning back to his plate. He had her back story—most of it, at least—now he just had to wait until Lily figured out how she was going to help. Glancing up, Hayden almost jumped, unnerved by the identical curious stares Bernie and Catherine were giving him.
“So where are you from, Hayden?” Bernie asked, grinning widely at him. Hayden smothered a groan. He was about to be subjected to a battery of questions, no doubt about it. He could make a break for it, but then they’d just corner him later and ask worse questions. Resigned, Hayden answered, interspersing Bernie and Catherine’s questions with bites of food. If he was going to be interrogated, he was damn well eating while they did it.
Learning to See by Julia Alaric
Sheeting rain obscured Brennin’s view of the path in front of him—assuming the path hadn’t entirely washed out in the present downpour. His horse seemed to be nearly up to her knees in mud and water as she struggled behind his father’s and brothers’ mounts. Long since soaked to the skin, too cold and numb to be able to provide her with any kind of guidance and too lost to know which way to point her if he could, Brennin muttered curses against his family’s idiocy under his breath and concentrated on staying in the saddle. He had a hard enough time riding when he was dry, comfortable, and rested.
Earlier that morning, they had concluded their annual visit to Brennin’s least favorite relatives. Eager though he had been to escape Aunt Angeline’s shudders of disgust and his younger cousins’ relentless mocking, he’d taken one look at the heavy black clouds overhead and suggested they extend their stay until the storm passed. His father, impatient to conclude an important business deal, had dismissively declared that no weather was too much for the Markum men and promptly had their horses saddled. His brothers, excited to return to their lovers, had ignored Brennin’s warnings and told him to stop being such a girl. Now, as Brennin watched their hunched forms disappear further into the curtain of water falling from the sky, he let himself mutter all of the invectives and gloating remarks he knew he would never have the courage to say to their face—if they ever even allowed him the opportunity.
A shout sounded up ahead, though he couldn’t tell which of his family members had spoken and could make out little of their gesturing. Fortunately, his horse had the sense to follow her equine companions as they veered into the forest, and in a few minutes the leaves had provided sufficient cover that Brennin was able to wipe enough water out of his eyes to see his father illuminated by a flash of lightening. He also saw the bulk of an enormous shadow looming behind his father.
He gestured wildly, hoping that, for once, his family would look at him long enough to understand what he was trying to tell them. When they continued to ignore him, he took what little strength and control he had left over his body to urge his horse forward, barging in between his brothers, Orin and Annar, as he moved toward the dark building he’d spotted. Their affronted faces followed him, gaping indignation turning to slack-jawed amazement as they too spied the tall iron gates. The gates swung open in tacit invitation as Brennin approached. His brothers rode past him, galloping down the long drive before he’d even gotten close enough to judge whether it would be safe to enter. When his father followed shortly behind them, Brennin gave up on caution, too dazed by rain and cold to do anything but plod along toward the castle stables.
When they reached the front entrance, Brennin’s father stretched out a hand to knock. The heavy door swung open silently before his knuckles had even brushed the ornately carved oak. Stepping inside, the four of them found their wet cloaks snatched away by invisible hands and cups of perfectly steeped tea mysteriously placed in their chilled fingers. Doors opened to reveal a lavish dining room occupied by the longest table any of them had ever seen. The scents of roasted pheasant, freshly baked bread, buttered vegetables, ripe fruit, and sundry other things wafted toward them like an enchanter’s spell; the steam rising from the soup tureens drifted in their direction as though in answer to the growling of their stomachs. His brothers exchanged glances, then looked to their father who merely shrugged and said, “At this point, I’d rather be full, warm, and cursed than go back outside and try to find our way home still cold, wet, and hungry.”
“I can’t imagine a curse much worse than what we just escaped,” Orin joked through chattering teeth, stirring a chuckle from his shivering twin. Brennin rolled his eyes, but refrained from telling them any of the horror stories he’d read about the kinds of curses that were cast upon unsuspecting young men traveling through the woods at night—particularly young men foolish enough to accept such plainly supernatural hospitality without suspicion.
The rest of the evening passed in a strangely familiar fashion, the obvious magic of the castle aside. Dinner proved to be every bit as delicious as the enticing aromas had promised, and their dirty plates disappeared as soon as they stood up from the table with full stomachs. Father quickly found a box of fine cigars and a wine to his liking, settled down in a deep leather chair, and dozed next to the fire in what appeared to be a comfortably-sized library. Orin pulled a deck of miraculously dry cards from his pack and settled down to play a game with Annar in a nearby salon. No one was surprised when invisible servants produced stacks of chips for betting and a few frosty mugs of a good dark beer. Brennin, as usual, was left to his own devices. Orin and Annar did not ask him to join their game; his father did not invite him to share his wine or cigars. Brennin knew better than to expect otherwise.
While his brothers bet on cards and his father relaxed by the fire, Brennin amused himself by wandering at his slow, stilted pace through the castle, looking for signs of their host. He discovered a huge arboretum and an even bigger study, a few dining rooms smaller than the one in which they had eaten and also one much larger, and a kitchen devoid of life but saturated with signs of living occupants: dirty dishes soaking in a tub of warm, soapy water; a wine glass with smudges around the lip and stem; sauce pans still simmering on the stove; open containers of flour, sugar, and spices; and a garbage bin filled with the remnants of the dinner he’d been served.
There were more bedrooms than he could imagine anyone knew what to do with, and most looked as though they’d been lying empty for decades despite their cleanliness. Through a large bay window in one of the bedrooms he could just see the outline of a vast garden cutting into the looming darkness of the forest. Brennin wished for enough light to see what types of plants decorated a castle of this magnitude, but that would have to wait until morning. Exhausted from his journey, he made his way to the empty bed and clambered in, just barely remembering to shed his muddy traveling boots and clothes.
When light began to stream through the open curtains and touched his face, he roused himself enough to struggle back into his clothes (which had been cleaned and pressed while he slept—he said an awkward “thank you” to the seemingly-empty air) and sought out his brothers and father. He was unsurprised to find them just where he’d left them. His father appeared to have finished his bottle of wine and at least two of the cigars before succumbing to sleep; his snores rumbled out of the chair in which he slept with greater volume even than his bed at home, thanks to the echo of the large stone room. His brothers were both asleep with their heads on the table, their betting chips, half-full glasses, and two spilled decks of cards littered around them. Orin’s jacket rested over the back of his chair; Annar’s was crumpled into a pillow beneath his arms. Both were still in their travel-stained boots and breeches.
Brennin sighed and shook his head before walking round to wake each in turn. His father grunted when Brennin shook his shoulder, then jerked upright and snapped his eyes open. “Ah, there you are, my boy,” he mumbled, clearing his throat and looking away before he’d even finished the sentence. At one time, his father’s inability to look on his face had hurt; now Brennin had come to expect his father’s gaze to slide away uncomfortably when his own mangled visage came into view.
Annar and Orin were a little more difficult to wake and significantly more cranky about it, but equally unwilling to look Brennin in the face. Brennin wondered wistfully what it would be like to meet someone’s eyes for more than a few seconds. He quickly quashed the thought and prepared to leave. He was what he was, and that would not change.
When they’d eaten the hot breakfast waiting for them in one of the smaller dining rooms and repacked their bags, Brennin’s father looked around the room one last time. “I think we’ve pretty well got everything,” he chuckled, exchanging fond glances with Orin and Annar. “Not much left here but that rose on the table.”
“Let us leave no such oversight,” Orin suggested, grinning. “Annar, care to beautify yourself for the trip home?” He tried to tuck the flower behind his twin’s ear, but Annar batted his hands away. “No?” His eyes turned to Brennin, skimming his form quickly before he commented with a mocking smile, “I think it is you who needs it the most, little brother.” He tucked the rose into Brennin’s buttonhole.
Then their host appeared.
His father and brothers gaped and shook in terror. Brennin suspected any normal person would have if suddenly presented with a large, ugly beast of indeterminate species, hackles raised and lips pulled back in a growl to expose rows of sharp teeth clearly designed to rip flesh from bone. However, a lifetime of his own reflection had made Brennin immune to the terror caused by ugliness. He was certainly startled, but his surprise faded into a burning curiosity rather than a fear of the unknown. When the beast growled out his displeasure at their behavior in coldly polite syllables, thereby revealing a voice, a mind, and a level of sentient humanity that further horrified his family, Brennin found himself the only one able to respond. He stood as straight as his broken body would allow, looked the beast in the eyes, and quietly apologized for their rudeness.
“You have nothing for which to apologize,” the beast replied. “Your behavior has left nothing to be desired. You sought out your host, although you did not find me; you thanked the servants, though you could not see them. You have treated my home with care, you have greeted me with respect, and you have made no attempt to take what did not belong to you.” When his eyes dropped to the yellow rose still threaded in Brennin’s buttonhole, Brennin realized with a jolt that the beast’s gaze had not wavered from his face since he’d first spoken. It was the first time in his entire memory that someone had looked upon him for so long. When the dark eyes returned to his face once more, it was still without disgust.
“I apologize for my brothers and my father, then,” Brennin responded. “I know it is no excuse, but the storm last night added one more unpleasant thing to a journey already full of unpleasantness. Had we been able to get home, we would not have trespassed upon your kindness at all. We will gladly pay whatever you require for your hospitality and then be on our way. Though,” he couldn’t resist grinning slightly, “if you could point us back in the direction of Rillsford, it would be most helpful. We have not the slightest idea where we are.”
He saw a flicker of something pass over the beast’s face, but it was difficult to read the expression on such inhuman features. The voice had unmistakably calmed when it offered, “I am not normally in the habit of asking non-monetary fees, but I am inclined to barter this morning.” The beast’s attention shifted to Brennin’s father. “In exchange for your night’s stay, the meals provided, and directions back to your home, I would ask your youngest son.”
Brennin felt his eyes widen, but did not otherwise display his shock at the strange request. When no answer was forthcoming, he glanced at his family to judge their reactions only to find that they had not yet overcome their fear of the beast. Annar appeared to have actually fainted at some point, though he was beginning to come round. Orin crouched beside him, clasping his hand, immobile as a statue. His father was attempting to speak, but he succeeded only in mouthing soundlessly.
So Brennin decided for himself.