7. The Return
Dirty and bedraggled, I stumbled through the kitchen door at dawn. Dulcie was there, trying in vain to light a fire for her tea. I winked at the stove, and fire sprang to life for me, as it always had.
Dulcie made an inelegant noise of surprise, and whirled to stare at me. “Is it really you, Ember? Are you returned?”
“I must tell you—”
I silenced Dulcie with a shake of my head. “No need, I know. You must bring me to him.”
“How did you—?”
“Don’t I always know? You mustn’t worry on it, for he was clumsy when he extracted the promise from you. He did not specify a time limit, which means you may comply whenever you wish, even if that day is a decade from now.”
“Oh. I was worried.” Dulcie sat down as I poured hot water over the tealeaves. “I did not want to betray you again.”
“You never betrayed me.” I brought the teapot and our cups to the table. “The prince’s curse is strong. There is little anyone can do to resist it.”
Dulcie nodded, but her expression remained sad and drawn. She’d shadows beneath her eyes, and a hint of gauntness to her usually round and rosy cheeks. I worried for her. “You look awful. Are you sick?”
Dulcie’s eyes widened and her cheeks went red with anger. “I don’t know why I missed you, Ember. You have no tact! I don’t look so bad; I just haven’t been sleeping well. Between the neighbor’s stupid howling dog and worrying about the prince, I’ve scarcely had a wink of sleep for the past week.”
Though few would suspect such delicacy of a courtesan, Dulcie is a very light sleeper. I once heard a tale of a princess who slept on a hundred featherbeds but was kept awake by a single pebble caught beneath the bottom mattress. Her servants grew so annoyed by her constant complaints that one night they pushed her from her mountain of mattresses, and she broke her neck and died. Dulcie had a similar inability to sleep, but a much sweeter disposition. We would have done anything to help her.
Sylvie, Minette and I went to great lengths to prevent disturbances of Dulcie’s fitful few hours of sleep each night. Sylvie used her wiles to convince the mayor of Ciú Dellos Reyes to ban noisy carts and hawkers from the Avenida Delpalacio. Minette made sure Dulcie had the quietest room in the house. A year past, when one of our neighbors refused to muzzle his noisy dog, I killed the thing to shut it up.
“I shouldn’t be mad at you,” Dulcie shook her head. “It’s true, I look a mess. Since you’re back, do you think you could talk with our neighbors, as you did last time, and convince them to send their dog away?”
“Of course,” I smiled and poured her tea. “You should go upstairs and try to rest. Everything will be just fine. I promise.”
After finishing my tea, I drew myself a bath and scrubbed the dirt of travel from my body. I did not bother to don the Cinder Girl’s face again, for the prince knew the truth of it now, and he was the one from whom I’d meant to hide.
The chatelaine of the house next door was a jolly creature, round of cheek and belly, and friendly to everyone she met. Her ruddy face went white when she opened her kitchen door to find me on her stoop.
“Witch!” She exclaimed in a startled squeak. “Uh, I mean, Mistress Ember! It’s so good to see you again after such a long absence. How may I help you?”
“My sister says your dog is keeping her awake.”
The housekeeper shook her head frantically. “Oh, no. We haven’t a dog. Not after what happened to the last one. We’ve heard the howling in the night as well. We thought perhaps your household had acquired a dog.”
I shook my head and thanked her before going on to interview our other neighbors. I spent the better part of the morning asking after the phantom dog and finding no clues. Everyone had heard howling the past few nights, but none knew who owned the dog or what it looked like.
Dispirited, I returned to our kitchens and found them crowded with servants. Our house was unusual among the great houses of the Avenida Delpalacio in that our servants worked from afternoon to midnight, and did not live within our walls. We were not, however, unusual among other well-heeled houses of ill repute. In the finer emporiums of commercial fornication, clients pay for secrecy as much as for sex. Few men and women of wealth like it when their bedsport becomes the stuff of gossip, and full-time servants are inveterate gossips.
The chefs and chef’s assistants, the butler, the footmen, the maid and the scullery scamp, all stopped their work to gape at me when I stepped through the kitchen door. They had heard of the red-haired witch. The neighbors had gossiped of me, and the prince’s lackeys had offered them money for news of my whereabouts.
I glared at them. “Don’t you all have tasks to do?”
They all turned away, even the chef. “You,” I snapped my fingers at the chef. “Fix me a tray for lunch and have it sent to the front parlor.”
You are thinking I was rude in my treatment of the servants. But you try to endure the shaky, frightened stares of half-a-dozen pairs of eyes and tell me how you well like it. Two weeks before, when I’d worn the guise of the Cinder Girl, these same people had treated me with courtesy and kindness. Now they trembled and scuttled out of my way as though they were afraid my shadow would fall on them and sour their luck. I was insulted.
I found Sylvie and Minette playing chess across the tea table in the parlor. Sylvie usually kept apace in their matches, but she was losing badly today. She seemed distracted and worried.
“Ember!” Sylvie jumped up, kicking her gray velvet skirts out of the way before crossing the room to throw her arms about my neck. “We were so worried when you left, and so relieved when Dulcie told us you’d returned. She is asleep upstairs. It must soothe her spirit to have you back at home.”
“I drugged her tea.”
Minette laughed. “Oh, it is good you are returned. I know you’ll figure out a way to thwart the prince.” She paused to look at the chessboard. “And I think he knows it, too.”
Minette did not often allow her face to betray emotion, for such shows of feeling would eventually lead to wrinkles. But now the painted black lines of her eyebrows drew together in thought. She picked up her skirt with one powdered hand and paced over to my mother’s blue leather chair. Sylvie and I kept quiet, knowing the thought must be important if Minette would risk a wrinkle for it.
Finally, she said, “I wonder if the reason the prince will not let you alone is because you defy him.”
“You’re not saying this is my fault!”
“No, no. I simply mean he is a man to whom it is impossible to say no. After a lifetime of such treatment, any sane soul would come to crave an honest opinion.”
I remembered what the prince had written of me. I will her to come to me, but she does not. It only makes me want her more.
“He wrote that he wanted me because I might refuse him.”
“It goes further. Does his curse affect animals?”
“No, only humans.”
“Yet he spends his days caring for animals in his stables or his kennels. Any woman who sees his face will gladly spread her legs for him, yet he spends his coin to pay for whores. The prince craves honest interactions, my dear. Even when you deny him, you provide a response he desires.”
“What a mad idea! I thought men liked to be flattered by their bed partners.”
“Most do, but not all,” Sylvie said. “Men may become aroused by the strangest things. I once had a very proper-seeming gentleman from L’Aingleterre who begged me to paddle his arse and call him naughty. And, did Dulcie ever tell you of the evening she spent with the Grand Duke and a zucchini?”
“Oh, Sylvie,” I buried my face in my hands, “please do not recount the tale. I like zucchini.”
Sylvie’s painted pink lips curved up into a mischievous smile. “So does the Grand Duke.”
My sisters broke into gales of laughter at the hot flush of embarrassment on my cheeks. They have always enjoyed shocking me. How I’d missed them! After my blushes faded, I laughed, too.
Our moment of merriment was cut short by a wailing howl from the street outside. Minette’s expression turned sour. “It is that dog again. I swear! If I have to endure one more night of howling I shall hire a hunter to track it down and kill it.”
I sneaked a glance at Sylvie. Her face seemed pale beneath her paint, and her expression looked drawn. Her hands lay in her lap, but she’d twisted her handkerchief into a rope and she held it taught between clenched fists.
I could not bear to see her in such a state. Another howl broke through the night, and Sylvie shivered at the sound.
“You should invite him in,” I told her, “before someone does him harm.”
“Him, who?” Minette asked. “The dog?”
Immediately, Sylvie began to cry. She ran from the room, and I heard the low creak of the front door opening, and the clack of her wood-heeled shoes on the front stair.
Minette looked me over with an arch eye. “You have a gift, Sister, for reducing people to tears.”
“And you have a gift for returning them to good humor. You know Sylvie loved him?”
“I suspected as much. I was with the constable when the Priest came to report her as a loup. I know Raoul did not betray her.”
“You never told her you knew?”
“Sometimes, we need little lies to save our pride.” She pinned me with a hard stare. “And sometimes we need big lies to save our souls.”
Minette was not speaking of Sylvie anymore.
“You think a lie will save me from the prince?”
“All this time, you have resisted his curse and it has made him want you. But if you were to nod and smile for him, acquiesce to his every whim and desire, you would be no different than anyone else. He would soon tire of you.”
“You mean I should spread my legs for him, even though I love another?” I hated to say the words, hated the way my heart leapt at an excuse to give in to his curse.
“You already have, Sister.” Minette paused. We heard two sets of footsteps ascend the stairs. She smiled. “You can only be with your lover if you rid yourself of the prince. Do not think of acceding to the prince as faithlessness; think of it as a noble sacrifice.”
She put a gentle hand on my shoulder. “The Harlots’ Ball is set for next week, at the dark of the moon. Let us dress you as a courtesan and take you to the palace. It will fulfill the promise the prince forced from us and I do not think his obsession with you will last a day if you act as vacuous in his presence as everyone else does.”
“Where is Sylvie?” Dulcie asked as she stirred a spoonful of honey into her morning tea. “She is usually the first of us to break her fast.”
“She is locked in her bedchamber with her lover,” Minette replied.
“Sylvie has taken a lover?” Dulcie’s eyes were wide. My sisters had among them a sort of code they used to describe the people they fucked. Men or women who paid were their “gentlemen” or their “ladies;” and those whom my sisters chose for pleasure alone were “lovers”.
“But Sylvie has not taken a lover in years. Not since we left Terre d’Or.”
“Not since Raoul,” Minette agreed. “And he is her lover, now.”
“Never say she has forgiven him! He would have seen her burnt at the stake.”
Minette took a few moments to explain the truth of the situation to Dulcie. I was glad to know she’d been as unaware of the true story as I. I did not want to think my sisters had deliberately left me out of their confidences.
“If he never meant her harm, then I am happy they are reunited.” Dulcie concluded.
I frowned. “You both are too forgiving.”
“So says the witch,” Minette laughed. “You never forgive anyone.”
“I do, too.”
“Oh? Then I suppose you have given up sticking pins in the little doll you made of Lord Campos after he blacked Sylvie’s eye.”
Minette knew me too well. The hex doll was to me as a favorite toy is to a child. I always kept it near. I poked it with pins or singed it with fire whenever I felt bored or peeved.
Lord Campos had become a wreck of a man since he’d crossed me, but it was not revenge enough. I intended for him to suffer the rest of his life for hurting my sister. You may think me cruel, but I have never felt the least bit of remorse.
“Do you forget Raoul gave Sylvie the loup a purpose?” I asked.
“He is a loup born,” Minette countered. Though all civilized people view the loup as an affliction, there are tribes in the east who consider the loup as a blessing, a mark of favor from their gods. “He likely thought he was doing her an honor. And besides, he did it for the love of her.”
“His intentions do not change the results of his actions, nor the fact that he forced the fate upon her.”
“No,” Minette agreed, “but it is the argument Sylvie will use as an excuse to forgive him.”
I wanted to disagree, but I have found over the years no man or woman alive who knows human nature quite so well as Minette. “Do you think so?”
“She loves him,” Minette answered. “For five years she has been melancholy, with her sad smiles and longing sighs. I have no doubt Sylvie will decide it is easier to forgive him than it is to go another five years without him.”
I thought of Rian and wondered if he would forgive me for betraying him with the prince once I confessed the truth of it. He loved me. Would he find it easier to take me back than to repudiate me? For the first time since I’d fled the prince’s bed, I dared to hope things might end happily.