The following week proceeded more or less like my first day, albeit with fewer tears. I woke up shivering in my little stone cell to the noise of the Assassin unlocking my door. Then I dressed in an outfit identical to the first and went upstairs to make tea. The rest of my day was spent cleaning, only broken up by lunch and dinner with the Assassin.
It had finally occurred to me why he had wanted a serving girl in the stead of gold. The beast was lonely. I felt rather dull for having caught on so slowly.
In two week’s time, I had completed the initial deep-cleaning of the castle. With only upkeep required, I found myself with free time. It seemed odd that within two weeks, I could have adjusted to not having such a thing that, in my precious life, had composed the majority of my day.
Equally odd was that I was at a loss as to what to do with it. I had entertained the thought of attempting to teach myself the craft of cooking, but without so much as a single recipe in the kitchen, I finally admitted it was a task best left to the Assassin.
For a few days, I took to exploring. I had cleaned all of the castle that wasn’t sealed off, but there were still innumerable cabinets, shelves, cupboards, closets, and boxes scattered from the dungeon to the attic.
I started in a comfortable sitting-room of sorts. Between reupholstering cushions, I poked in the various trunks in the room. One was only filled with weapons, which could be an interesting conversation piece. Another had fabrics and sewing supplies which I noted for future use.
One appeared to be like the second, but rather than unused fabric, it was full of clothing. Women’s, not unlike my own blue dress, and that of a boy.
The Assassin’s and his mother’s, perhaps, I thought. At least, I assume the beast had a mother. I made up my mind to ask him at lunch that day.
We had continued our tradition of asking one another one question each. On some days, I was forced to waste my question on the mundane, such as Are your curtains nailed down? They were. Or May I have a blanket tonight? I could.
His questions varied to the point of amusement. Sometimes he asked me about my old life. Other times he simply inquired about the days food. Once or twice, he posed a philosophical question. this day, however, he seemed surprised at my answer.
“You must have read Thelain’s work,” He commented.
“I have,” I replied. “I was once very fond of reading.” I always spoke of my old life as though it had been years ago, not just the near-month it had been. “My question. Who do the clothes belong to? The ones in the trunk, in the sitting room.”
The Assassin fell very quiet as he ate. Today it was soup, every bit as exotic as the sandwiches we had eaten on my first day. This was my first question about his personal history. Despite our deal, the Assassin was every bit as mysterious as he was when he had been no more than a legend.
“They belong only to me, now,” he said.
“Then they belonged to someone before you,” I pressed.
“No more questions.”
“That wasn’t a question,” I responded. “I’m still permitted to make statements and guesses. A little brother?”
“A son.” The Assassin stood. “Clean up when you’re through eating,” he commanded. And with that, he left the room.
His answer raised a storm of thought sand more questions. My beast had once been a man. A man who loved, and was loved back. A man with a family.
So the beast was not always a beast, I thought as I scrubbed out his soup pot. I wonder if that means the beast before me can be tamed.
It did not seem so impossible as it might once have. There was a human beneath that hood. I had seen him, when he cooked or when I had seen his need for companionship.
It still came as a shock, however. The mythical Assassin, lonely and broken. A man who had lost his family. Who had to rely on trickery to gain human contact.
From that moment on, whenever I saw the man I now call master, I no longer hissed ‘You monster’ in my head, but rather ‘that poor beast’. He was a killer, he was dark, and perhaps even evil. But there were tears behind the blood and a broken heart behind his blade.
Nothing else about my situation had changed with this revelation, however. My new life went on as it ever would, with cleaning and questioning and shivering through the nights.
On the day marking a month of my servitude, the Assassin asked me a question that threw me off guard.
“Why are you smiling?”
I looked up from my mug of water in surprise. “What do you mean sir?”
“You’re smiling. An attribute generally found in happy people.”
“Then I suppose I’m happy,” I said without much thought. Word-play and little banters were no uncommon thing between us, and the reply slipped out without over-analysis.
“As the servant of a man who kills for a living? Snatched from an easy life as princess, stolen away from family and friends, forced to sleep in a dungeon and clean a castle?” The Assassin’s face was, as ever, hidden from view. But the way he gripped his cup, the way he leaned on the table towards me, his whole intense manner conjured up an expression of near desperation for my answer.
“Perhaps not happy,” I said slowly, giving my answer more thought in response to the deadly seriousness surrounding the Assassin. “But satisfied. And a moment ago, I could have been happy. I was certainly not sad or unwell.”
“Then you could be happy here?” asked the Assassin. There was something tentative in his otherwise intense voice. I had heard that voice be dark, carefree, or mocking. But not this.
“I suppose so,” I said nervously. Would he change something? Ensure I suffered for the sake of my kingdom?
He was silent for the rest of the meal. When he stood, however, he did not issue his usual command of ‘clean up’.
“I will be gone for some time. Continue as you have until I return.”
“Are you off to save another kingdom?” I asked. “That will be my question of the day.”
“Or perhaps destroying one,” he replied.
Before I could comment or dare another question, the Assassin left with a swish of his cloak.
I did continue about my day normally. Nothing in particular struck me until I went into my cell for the night. it occurred to me then that the Assassin was not there to lock me in. Was leaving me unsecured as a sign of trust? Was this a test? Had he simply forgotten? Or did he know that, should I take it up in my mind to escape, that I would likely fail?
Well never mind escaping, I thought. I couldn’t risk my family and friend’s safety. I just don’t want to sleep in this drafty cell all night.
I later realized that he could have come home at any time and caught me fast asleep in one of the grand bed-rooms. But at the moment, I was simply enjoying the comforts of a real bed, in a warm room, with thick blankets.
Morning came as it always does, and I continued with laundry and dusting. But the feeling of freedom that not having the Assassin lurking over my shoulders provided, I found myself drawn to the prospect of exploring.
I had put off the activity for the past several days, since the Assassin’s strange reaction to his son’s clothing. Something in me seemed to be afraid of resuming my search of the castle. But the feeling lifted in my intoxication of freedom, and I soon found myself rifling through boxes and cupboards.
For the most part, there was nothing of interest. There were candlesticks and daggers, ink and parchment, seeds and stones. Most of it appeared to have been from the castle’s days as a real castle.
That was what struck me as most interesting. The Assassin had yet to prove that he lived here by any means other than living there. That is, he had no clothing, save that of his wife’s and son’s, and no books, no letters, no tools, no instruments. Nothing personal. Nothing I could hold up and say, “Ah yes, and this belongs to my beast.”
I could only assume those things lay behind the padlocked doors. My temptation to see what was in those rooms was strong. Strong enough to do it, I fancied, if I had a way of getting past the locks.
The Assassin did not return that day, nor the next. But by that day, I had discovered a way of getting through the locks. Perhaps the answer had always been in my mind; the temptation had just not been strong enough to coax it out. But I could recall the Assassin locking my cell door at night. His ring of skeleton keys. And the soft clatter of the keys, moments after he had ascended the stair-case.
He’s likely brought them with him, I scolded. But I found myself searching the entrance hall in any case.
And five minutes later, I was standing in front of a locked door, wondering how likely it was that I would soon find myself assassinated.
It took several tries before I found the key that fit the door. One finally slid in. I twisted and the padlock sprang open. I pushed on the door.
I didn’t really know what I had expected to find inside the room. But shelves of china was most certainly not on the list.
“What in the world,” I muttered, stepping inside.
Most of the china was the most common pattern, plain white save for a twist of blue glaze. But each piece could have been fashioned out of horse dung and not surprised me more. it wasn’t simply that he owned the pieces, but the fact that he locked it away. Did he think I might try and use some pieces to fund my escape? But no, there was plenty else in this castle to sell and live off of.
I stepped further in the room, pulling a tea cup off of one of the shelves. I turned it over in my hands, contemplating the collection.
The cup slid from between my fingers, hitting the edge of the shelf before rolling away on the carpet.
“What is my little Beauty up to?” mused the Assassin. He stood in the door-frame, his form intimidating, but voice not dark.
"“I- ah,” I stammered, unable to look at the Assassin. I searched the floor instead, and spotted the runaway cup half-tucked under a low shelf. “Oh dear,” I murmured, bending to pull it out. “It has a chip in it...”
The Assassin was silent. I held it up to show him, biting my lip so hard that I thought I might break the skin.
“I’m so sorry,” I said after a moment.
“It’s only a cup,” he replied. “I’m more concerned with why you were in a very obviously locked up room, with what appears to be a stolen set of keys.”
“You always manage to avoid questions about yourself,” I said after a moment. “I wanted to know more about you.”
“You wanted to know more about me,” he repeated.
“Well, I will be caring for you for the next forever,” I replied. “I’m never to know anyone else. Can’t I at least know you, my b- master?”
I had very nearly called him my beast. Somehow, I thought he would appreciate the name just as much as I appreciated ‘beauty’; that is to say, not at all.
The Assassin plucked the chipped cup from my hands. “Very well. I assume you’ve finished your daily chores? Cleaning, laundering, etc?”
I blinked at him. “You... you aren’t angry?”
The Assassin tilted his head. “Should I be?”
Without saying a word, I awkwardly set the ring of skeleton keys on the shelf and exited the room.
He didn’t kill me, I thought. I’m still alive. Almost as though I didn’t believe it, my fingers rested on my throat. No blood.