The cell was cold. I don’t know why that surprised me. Of course it was cold. There was no fireplace, no magical spell for warmth, no comfortable bed and blanket. Just a stone floor, stone walls, and a frigid window.
Two things kept me warm. The thought that my father and all his kingdom would sleep safely tonight, and hatred for their savior.
I fell asleep at some point. My body was exhausted from the walk, and my spirit from keeping grief at bay. I wish that I had cried out all my pain before I’d fallen asleep; instead, the pain waited until the next morning.
CLANK. The door to my cell hit the wall, showing the Assassin. His form was visible in the cool morning light, but his face still hidden under the hood.
“Good morning! Enough beauty sleep?”
I realized it was not my maid waking me up. It would not be my father having breakfast with me, it would not be Costas fretting over the Alesky army, and it would not be Peter the royal adviser telling me the day’s duties. There would be only this beast before me.
A strangled noise escaped my throat, and tears began to well up.
“Apparently not,” said the Assassin. “Well, when you’re done with that, you can get dressed. Your gown is lovely, but not terribly suitable for cleaning, eh?”
He turned with a swish of his cloak, leaving me to my sobs.
I don’t know if I wept out of fear for myself, or sadness over losing everything I had known, or if it was a helping of both. But sometimes tears simply demand the world be put on hold. I recall suspecting, as it wore away, that even the Assassin had to know this.
When I had regained my composure, I felt less burdened, save for the dull headache that always accompanied crying. I missed my father, of course. But what was I leaving behind besides him? An arranged marriage and unfulfilled dreams of being a hero? This new life as a servant of the Assassin was far from ideal. But it was worth it to save the kingdom. It was worth it to be the hero.
And if the kingdom was worth marrying Prince Costas in the first place, it was certainly worth giving him up.
I pulled off my yellow gown soiled by a night in the dungeon and put on the simple blue dress the Assassin had provided. I tied on a white apron, pulled back my hair, and replaced my slippers.
I found the Assassin sitting in what appeared to be a dining hall. For its monstrous appearance, the inside of the castle wasn’t as unmanageable as it seemed at first blush. It would still take considerable time to clean, but there were no more than five and twenty rooms, counting my own ‘secure sleeping area’. Several rooms were secured with padlocks, I had noticed.
“Ah, good morning princess,” said the Assassin, though his back was turned to me and I had not stepped loudly.
“I’m no princess anymore,” I said. There was a self-conscious flutter in the pit of my stomach. I was no princess; I was the servant of a man so dangerous he was only a half-believed legend.
“A fair point,” he said. “I’ll have to find a new nickname for you.”
“My name is Adalina,” I said, a little more boldly than I should have.
“So I gathered. Well, ‘Adalina’, would you serve the tea?”
I had never served Tea in my life. I walked forward, clenching my hands behind my skirt. “Yes, sir.” The words of servitude seemed to choke in my throat. “But what should I call you?” I put my shaking hand to the smooth, cool handle of the teapot, forcing it to be still.
“Perhaps you should call me unlucky since I seem to have collected a serving girl incapable of making the tea before attempting to pour it,” said the Assassin.
My cheeks burned as I set down the teapot. “I’m sorry, sir. I was unaware.”
“I find nobles do tend to think things like tea come out of thin air. So, while I can’t compliment your wits I can comfort your lack of them by saying you’re not the only dimwitted Princess I’ve met.”
I picked up the tray, equally embarrassed at the Assassin’s sharp words and the extremely obvious sound of the dishes clattering against one another as my hands shook. I stepped into the kitchen and set the tray down on the first empty bit of counter I could find. I took a few deep breaths, trying to clear my mind.
Damn headache, I thought. Damn pride. Damn beast of a man!
I strode over to the massive fireplace, thanking any god or magical being out there that it was already lit. I could struggle through brewing a cup of tea, but lighting a fire seemed impossible.
I picked up the bucket near the hearth and pushed open a door that leads outdoors.
To my surprise, it was beautiful. While the grounds were unkempt, it had once been a magnificent garden. Past the walls was a forest, and on the other side of the fortress sprawled a mountain vista that glowed in the morning sunlight.
I couldn’t figure why the beautiful outdoors shocked me so until I realized that every window in the castle had been hidden from sight. Assuming it had been originally built with them, I figured that the Assassin must have covered them with the thickly embroidered curtains and rich tapestries that lined every wall.
Well, no matter how many hoods or curtains you hide behind, you can’t mask the monster you are, I thought.
I located the well and drew a bucket of water, then lugged it back into the kitchen. It took some searching, but I found several bags of exotic smelling tea-leaves. a few moments later, I had a steaming pot of tea ready for the beast.
“Has Beauty muddled out the secret of tea-making?” asked the Assassin when I re-entered the room.
“Beauty?” I asked, quite forgetting my place as I raised my eyebrows.
“Well, Brains is hardly a fit name,” the Assassin replied mildly.
I sat a cup of tea in front of him, along with the sugar bowl. He added a lump, waited for it to cool, then took a sip.
“Though, perhaps that could change,” he commented idly. “No need to hover over my shoulder; the castle awaits a thorough cleaning.”
“I thought I might ask a question of you first,” I said, burying my self-consciousness. “Sir,” I added, a bit rising again.
The Assassin set down his cup. “It seems you’ll remain curious. Here’s the deal, then. Each day, you may ask me one question. The price of my answer will be an answer from you of any question I have.”
“Very well, sir,” I said. I put my hands behind my back so he wouldn’t see me nervously fiddle with my fingers. “Why not gold? Prince Costas wa- is very rich. One serving wench might be useful, but is hardly the best investment.”
“I have money. I have no need of jewels or armies or anything either of those royal fools could have offered.” I started when I realized that one of “those royal fools” was my father. “My question. Why did you decide to come? A serving girl may not be a wise investment, but neither is one difficult to replace.”
“It was my chance to be a hero,” I said after a moment. “You know, to save the day, rescue the kingdom, spare the life of a damsel in distress.” The answer wasn’t completely honest. But then, I had the suspicion that neither was his. In truth, I had one split thought of “now may be my only chance to be brave” and before I knew it, I was a slave. If anything, it had been a mistake. Not heroism.
I wasn’t capable of that. I wasn’t capable of anything more than lusting for adventure from afar.
The Assassin contemplated me for a long moment before taking another sip of the tea. “Fair enough. The castle awaits!”
The beast had not been lying, however, when he had told me that I would need my beauty sleep. The castle was massive, and each room required dusting, sweeping, carpet beating, tapestry, and curtain cleaning, reupholstering, polishing, mopping, and more. A staggering task for even the most seasoned of housemaids.
But to a delicate princess who had done little more than order the maids about, it was enough to send the said princess into near hysteria.
Perhaps as a result of living my life unable to succeed in the dreams I’d imagined, I had always found myself unwilling to fail any real task at hand. Be it saving the kingdom, teaching myself to sew, or marrying a Prince I’d never met, failure was unforgivable. And the price was usually despising my own weak will and harassing myself into a tearful fit.
I was determined that no such failure would happen again. if I could save the kingdom of Tearian, I could clean the lair of a beast.
And so, armed with a plethora of dusters, brooms, mops and buckets of water, I attacked the dining room.
No surface was spared. Mercy was not given to a single corner. It was war, with no prisoners taken. Not so much as a speck of dust was left on a single saucer. Dusting, however, proved to be the simplest of tasks.
Mopping left the bottom of my skirt soaked. Polishing the furniture left me nauseous. Beating the rugs left me exhausted. And with the room as dim as it was, it was hard to tell that I had really made that much of a difference in the first place. I tugged at one of the curtains in frustration, but it didn’t so much as flutter.
It’s like the whole thing is dead, I thought.
“Ah, much better in here,” said the Assassin. “Not so badly done as one might have feared.” He ran a finger along a shelf of china then peered at it. Seemingly satisfied, he sat down.
“Thank you?” I was uncertain as to how I should respond. ‘My pleasure’ felt a bit dishonest for even us.
“And what will we be having for lunch?” asked the Assassin.
“Lunch, sir?” I stood there dumbly, a needle and some thread in one hand to repair the cushion of a seat.
“The meal commonly eaten in the middle of the day,” he responded. “The one that would generally be cooked by, for example, a serving girl.”
“I can’t cook!” I protested. “I can barely recall which sauce goes on which meat!”
“Well, that will make the task rather difficult for you to do and me to enjoy.”
“I can muddle out cleaning, sir, but not cooking.”
“Then I suppose the duty of cooking remains mine.” The Assassin stood and made his way to the kitchen.
“You aren’t making me do it?” The words flew out of my mouth, sounding shocked.
“What’s the point of that? You can’t cook. I like good food. And that, as surely even you could see, is a recipe for disaster.” He pushed open the kitchen doors and disappeared inside.
For a beast, he is certainly a strange one, I couldn’t help but think.
I resumed the reparation of the cushions. Five seat covers later and the Assassin had returned, this time laden with trays of food. He had an exotic looking array sandwiches, each filled with strange meats and sauces.
“Sit,” the Assassin ordered.
“I am... to dine with you?”
“It hardly seems worth preparing this only to have the only other person in the castle eat it in the kitchen at a later time. Sit.” He set the tray on the table and resumed his sitting at the head.
I stood and dusted off my skirt, then sat on the newly repaired seat adjacent to his. He passed me the rolled-up sandwich.
“To Beauty’s hope for brains,” he said, raising his sandwich slightly in the air before taking a bite.
To the Beast’s hope for humanity, I thought, taking a bite of my own.