Sometimes, the muse is fickle. Sometimes a story starts out beautifully, and then completely stalls out. So this is fair warning that today’s Fiction Friday is from a story that never got finished. It went beautifully for about four chapters, and then I ran into some major issues, and went on to a different project. I may come back to this one, but for now it’s incomplete. I know the full plotline so if anyone’s really curious I can tell you about it, but it hasn’t been written yet.
But I thought the first chapter was pretty entertaining, and I hope you might find it that way too, even without the rest of the story to follow.
This is in the same world as The People the Fairies Forget, but a different time and a different country. Fun bit of trivia: the countries in this world all have names inspired by fairy tale writers (or retellers). This story is mostly set in Gaicaveene, which is named for Gail Carson Levine, and Rokinlay, named for Robin McKinley.
She looked up at the castle and shivered. It was cold and there was a wind blowing—but it wasn’t that kind of shiver. And it wasn’t, from appearance, the kind of castle that should make a person shiver. It was a shiver that should be prompted by looming parapets of crumbling stone, moss grown walls and birds of prey winging beneath a full moon. It wasn’t a shiver that one would expect from gleaming white towers, rooftops shining golden beneath an afternoon sun, and pennants waving gaily in the wind.
She pulled her silk scarf more tightly across her face and told herself to stop being excessively imaginative. It was a bad habit.
The caravan wound its way along the road towards the castle, the horses picking up speed slightly as if they knew, after many days of traveling, that their final destination was near. The guards were looking ahead too, towards hot food and soft beds, as much as the horses were looking ahead to hay and stables. She tried to feel some of that eagerness herself, sitting straighter on the litter. For most of the trip she had ridden in the carriage, but as they neared the castle, proper appearances had to be made. Thus the litter came out, and she rode carried by four guardsmen. This mode of transportation let in the landscape and the sunlight better than the carriage—and let the wind in too.
The drawbridge was down over the moat, and the enormous wooden doors swung open as the party approached. The doors didn’t even creak ominously, nor did they bang when they closed again behind the last horseman. And there was certainly nothing sinister in the trumpets heralding the entrance of the King into the courtyard—though there was something a little shrill in their brassy voices. And surely she should have been able to see a few trumpeters? But perhaps she hadn’t noticed them on the wall as the caravan had entered.
The four guardsmen lowered the litter and she stepped out, standing in the sunlight and holding her scarf against the whipping wind.
The guards who had accompanied her on the journey stood behind her, at a slight distance. The King of Gaicaveene was before her. He approached to within a few paces of her and stopped. His own guards were massed behind him, but she barely glanced at them, her eyes caught by him. The King.
He looked like an angel, blond hair looking golden in the light, eyes a soft blue, features perfectly symmetrical. So why did his perfect smile make her shiver worse?
“My princess,” he breathed, with a voice like velvet. “I’ve been waiting for you.”
She inclined her head, dropped a curtsy and murmured, “Your Majesty.”
“I am so pleased that you have arrived safely. Obviously your guards have done adequate work in that regard.” His eyes swept the row of guards behind her. “But you won’t be needing them anymore.” He gestured to his own guards with one hand. “Handle them.”
His guards drew their swords with a rasp. They were all in black, and wearing helmets that hid their faces. They were dressed like men, shaped like men…but they didn’t move like men. The first of the princess’ guards never had time to draw his sword. For the ones who did, it didn’t help them.
She didn’t faint. She didn’t scream, except for once. Then she covered her face with her hands as though she could block out what was happening around her.
When it was over, the King reached out and grasped her wrist, pulling her hand down. “None of that. I shall expect my bride to get used to a little mess now and then.”
It wasn’t over. Not for her. “Your…bride?”
He was smiling again. “Of course. What else did you travel all this way for?”
“But—but the guards, you—”
“You didn’t really think I’d let you keep them, did you? Don’t worry, my dear. I have better ones, who will keep you…very safe.”
Then he gestured peremptorily to a cluster of figures at the far end of the courtyard, and they came forward at his beckoning. They were swathed in gray and showed little more of their features than the guards, yet gave the impression of being softer, more feminine. They also didn’t move quite like humans do.
She wondered when the grey-cloaked women had entered the courtyard. She hadn’t seen them before. She decided it must have been while she was distracted by…other things. And then she wondered why she was even thinking about when they’d entered the courtyard, considering those…other things, considering the dead guards lying around her, considering the King still holding her wrist and smiling, considering…
Some small, quite removed and calm corner of her mind told her that if she considered all of that, considered what had just happened and what was happening next, she would probably just end up by having hysterics right there in the courtyard, which would not help. So perhaps she’d better continue thinking about the gray women after all.
The King singled one out of the group of four—women? Were they really women?—and said, “Take my newest bride to her rooms.” To her, to his ‘newest bride,’ he said, “I’ll give you the opportunity to rest a bit. Before the wedding this evening.”
She clenched her teeth and nodded, because she doubted that screaming, begging or struggling would help, and that tiny calm corner of her mind told her not to try. She would have whole-heartedly pursued any of the three possibilities if she had thought it had the slightest chance of making any difference.
The King released her wrist and she followed the gray woman across the courtyard. A guard followed her. Behind her, she heard the King tell his guards, “Clean up this mess. Before it begins to smell.”
The gray woman led the way inside, through carpeted halls and past wood paneling, up two flights of stairs, to stop at one door that looked little different from any other, save that there was a guard in front of it.
“You’ll have the freedom of this wing,” the gray woman told her. “The guard will be at the door.”
To keep her safe. And to keep her from leaving.
She nodded again, slipped past the guard to enter, and listened to the door click shut behind her.
It was a sitting room. There were doorways leading off of it which, presumably, led nowhere useful because they surely didn’t lead out. Not out of the wing, out of the castle, out of the nightmare. She didn’t care enough to find out where they did lead. She did observe that there was plenty of space between the couches for flinging oneself to the ground for a thorough round of hysterics. If one was interested in that sort of thing.
She considered the space almost dispassionately, then crossed the room to the window instead. She pressed her palm against the glass, pushed just slightly, and wondered how far it was to the ground below.
She supposed that she could pray. Praying was always an option. Except at the moment, the only prayer she could seem to formulate was “please, please, please.”
Please, please, please, please, please, please…
“If you’re thinking about jumping, it won’t work. His magic will stop you.”
She jumped then, but just a small jump of surprise at the voice behind her. She turned to see the man who had entered the room.
At least he moved like a human. He looked like one too, though his nose had a pronounced bent and his chin was too broad, his shaggy hair hung over his collar in back and over his too-thick eyebrows in front, and his mouth was distinctly lopsided. “I’m sorry,” he said, mouth growing more crooked as he smiled. “I didn’t mean to frighten you.”
“No, you just startled…me.” She finished the sentence, but the last word ended on a strange note. Her eyes had drifted down to his hands.
Or rather, where his hands should have been. He didn’t look entirely human, because instead of hands he had paws. They ended in hooked claws and were covered in thick brown fur that disappeared beneath the cuffs of his shirt. Seeing the direction of her gaze, he placed them behind his back. “I’m sorry again. I know they’re not much to look at. I’m afraid you’ll find that we’re all monsters here. But I promise you, I’m an eminently harmless one.”
For some reason, she believed him. But she still didn’t know what to say to that, or what to say about his hands—his paws, or really what to say at all, so somehow she ended up by saying, “I wasn’t thinking about jumping. I mean, not to my death. Just for escaping, maybe.”
“That won’t work either. Even if you get the pane open, he has a magic shield up to keep anyone from getting out of the window. I’ve tried.”
So she wasn’t the only prisoner. That was somehow comforting. Though not very, and she knew it was a rather selfish way to take comfort too. “It was only a thought, anyway,” she said in reference to the window. “I don’t think it was much of a thought, even. I don’t think I was really thinking much of anything at all…”
“Under the circumstances, the mere fact that you’re not hysterical is impressive,” he said, which seemed like a very decent thing to say.
She half-laughed—not at all a natural laugh. “Give me a minute. I haven’t decided yet whether to have hysterics or not.” She moved away from the window, sank onto the nearest couch, and covered her face in her hands. “Down there…in the courtyard…the guards…”
“I know,” he said. “Parts of this wing look out on the central courtyard. They don’t provide access, but they give a view.”
“How could he just…just…”
“He doesn’t think about it any more than most people think about killing a swarm of wasps. A dozen guards of questionable loyalty are an inconvenience, so he found the simplest way to do away with that problem.” His words were flat, detached, even impassive, but there was still something in his voice…something that made her think that he, too, had a small corner of his mind telling him to stay calm and rational, and which had little to do with what the rest of him was feeling. It was that corner that was talking.
The matching corner of calm in her mind told her to straighten up and lower her hands and, at the very least, try to behave rationally. “I don’t think I will have hysterics after all. I don’t think they’ll help.”
“I wish I could do something,” he said, and now a little more of what wasn’t calm was sounding in his voice.
“It’s too late for the guards.”
“I didn’t mean for them.”
“I’d rather not think about that, thank you,” she said hurriedly. She did not—violently did not—want to think about…about that, about her own situation, about evening and… So far she’d managed not to think about it, not straight on at least, though it was lurking there in the shadows. If it came into focus, very likely hysterics would cease to be an optional possibility. Though very soon it wouldn’t be something to think about, it would be… She cast about for a distraction. “I seem to have forgotten manners entirely. I haven’t even asked who you are.”
“I am Prince Michael Edward Gillian, second son of the royal family of Rokinlay. Currently: prisoner.” He inclined his head slightly. “Hence my knowledge about possible escape through windows. And may I ask your name?”
It should have been an obvious follow-up question to hers, yet it still caught her off-guard. “My name?” she repeated. “Oh…my name is…Evangelina. Evangelina Angelica Julianna Lianora. Princess of Beaumont.”
He bowed from the waist. “If circumstances were different, it would be a pleasure to meet you, Evangelina Angelica Julianna Lianora, princess of Beaumont.”
She just nodded. Even though her name wasn’t Evangelina. And she wasn’t the princess.