Chapter 1: Announcements
“I wonder what this is all about.” Vera says as she comes to stand next to me, her voice a quiet whisper.
Sighing, I drag my gaze from my shoes and look around the room. All of the castle’s servants are standing around, confused expressions on their faces and they murmur amongst themselves. Clearly nobody has any clue why we’ve been summoned here.
The King’s Second commanded that all the castle’s servants be in the Great Hall before breakfast for an announcement, but that’s all the information he gave.
I shrug, responding to Vera. “Me too. It’s not often that they do this.”
My mind flashes back to the last time the royals had such a formal announcement and I hold back a grimace. The King and Queen from a nearby land were coming to visit, and we were warned that their treatment of humans was harsh and to be on our best behavior.
Up until that day, I never realized just how terrifying the Beasts can be. On the first day of their visit, the visiting King was eyeing one of the kitchen girls and, as she was serving him his meal, the Queen reached across the table and murdered her.
The girl’s throat was ripped out in one swift motion. She was frozen for a moment, almost as if her brain couldn’t comprehend what had happened, before she crumpled onto the floor. The room was completely still for what felt like only milliseconds before the Beasts continued on with their meal as if nothing had happened. It was horrific, and was whispered about for months.
As Vera and I continue walking into the room, I glance around trying to spot John. He stands a good foot above the other men, and with his overgrown mop of pale blonde hair he’s generally hard to miss.
I spot him talking with a group of men near the front entrance, but before I can make my way over the room falls silent and everybody turns to face the doorway behind me.
Spinning around, I watch as King Richard and his Second step into the room. Uncomfortable with the close proximity, I shuffle backwards slightly. I know that the action won’t go unnoticed, but it’s important I keep a safe distance in case they are angry with us.
My movement causes the King to glance at me for a moment before peering around the room. He takes his time, carefully inspecting each and every one of us, occasionally nodding to himself.
I can feel my palms getting sweaty, and I resist the urge to wipe them on my dress. Instead opting to clench them into fists by my side. Why is he looking at us like this?
The King’s gaze suddenly snaps back to the center of the room and he clears his throat, preparing to speak.
“Hello all,” he starts, both his face and voice void of any emotion. “I’m sure you are all wondering why you are here. It has been requested that a small number of you transfer to Ziad, a kingdom in the North. We have yet to decide on who will be going, but decisions will be made by the end of the day. Continue working as normal, and we will inform you later today should you be chosen to leave.”
I feel my breath leave my body at his words, my shoulders slumping forward in relief. I am a strong worker here at the castle, and it is unlikely that I will be chosen to leave.
Just as quickly as he arrived, the King turns and leaves the room, his Second following behind. The second they are out of sight, conversations break out amongst the staff.
I turn back around to face the room, and notice that Vera has left my side and is speaking with John. I swiftly make my way over to them, wiping my sweaty palms on my dress to wick away the moisture that had accumulated while in the presence of the King.
“Who do you think will be chosen?” John asks Vera, nervousness apparent in his voice. “I hope it’s not me. I’ve heard awful things about Ziad.”
John catches my eye as I approach on his left and shifts his body to the right, making room for me to join their conversation. His eyebrows furrow together and I watch as he brings his bottom lip between his teeth, biting at the dry skin.
“He said that only a small number are going, so we should all be fine.” I say, trying to soothe his worries.
Vera frowns, looking just as stressed as John. She grabs a curl resting on her collarbone, pulling it straight and mindlessly fiddling with the ends.
“What have you heard about them?” She asks John, ignoring my statement.
“That they are cruel. That humans are treated as trash. That their servants are maimed and punished for the smallest of mistakes.” John glances at me, “They would probably whip you for wearing such raggedy shoes around.”
I frown, glancing down at my shoes once more. Would I really be punished for such a small thing? I hear John let out a dry laugh, and can’t help but to let some worry seep into my bones. I’ve never left King Richard’s kingdom, and don’t have a lot of insight into how the other ones treat their humans.
It’s no secret that we aren’t exactly loved by the Beasts, but the King treats us well. We are fed two meals a day and are allowed one day off a month.
John continues, “I’ve heard that the Royals in Ziad are even worse than the ones that came to visit last summer!”
Vera and I exchange glances, and she lets out a visible shudder. Her fingers continue to pull at her curls, an action she does whenever she is overcome with anxiousness.
“We should get back to work,” Vera says suddenly, her voice a higher pitch than normal. “I don’t want to think about this anymore.”
I nod in agreement, wishing the two goodbye, before turning and heading towards the kitchen. It’s Tuesday, which means that I need to help with breakfast before rushing to the King and Second’s quarters to help tidy up with John.
The kitchen is alive with chatter by the time I arrive. Everybody guessing who will be chosen and spilling all the secrets they have heard about the Ziad kingdom. I try to stay out of it, not wanting to get involved. Besides, I don’t think that I will be chosen to go.
My task of cleaning the King’s quarters is very important. It signals that I am a trustworthy servant and, given that I have been doing it for years with no mishaps, proves that I do not pry or speak about any information that I happen to overhear while I am there. Given by all the gossip that is bring spread today, I would guess that that’s a pretty hard trait to come by, making me more valuable than the others.
Breakfast goes by fairly quickly. I was not tasked to help with serving, and was made to stay inside the kitchen and plate the food. This morning’s meal consisted of a full English breakfast: eggs, bacon, sausage, beans, and toast.
I was told once that this was a dish commonly eaten by the humans before the Beasts came. Apparently they took on a number of our traditions when they took over, particularly the ones surrounding cuisine.
The scent of the foods make my mouth salivate and brings my incredibly empty stomach to the forefront of my mind. I wasn’t able to eat my second meal yesterday, having been running late on my cleaning, and I was paying for it now. Sharp pains strike my sides and my stomach continuously rumbles, but I ignore it, knowing that I will be able to eat after the Beasts have finished their food.
Once finished plating all the food, I head over to the sink to wash my hands and grab some cleaning supplies. Needing to distract myself from my hunger, I disinfect all the counters and move all the dishes we used while cooking into the sink. As I’m setting down the last of the plates, the head chef waves me over.
“You’re free to go eat your breakfast now.” She tells me, waving her arm in the direction of the servant’s dining room.
I shoot her a quick thanks before rushing out of the room. Cleaning the King’s quarters takes up most of the day, meaning I need to eat quickly if I’m going to finish with enough time for dinner.
The dining room is already full, and everybody seems to be talking about Ziad and the transfers still. I find an empty seat between one of the gardeners and laundry women and plop down into it.
“You know, I wouldn’t mind being transferred. Their rules may be harsh but have you seen their King? Talk about gorgeous.” The laundry woman, Emma I believe her name is, laughs out as she shoves a spoonful of porridge into her mouth.
I grab a bowl from the center of the table and serve myself a couple large spoonfuls of porridge. A smile spreads across my face as I notice that they put in some brown sugar today.
An elderly woman sitting across from Emma and I scoffs, “Watch what you’re saying,” she points her spoon at Emma “You don’t want them hearing and putting you on that list. Besides, you really think that the King would be interested in some human? Wishful thinking.”
“I heard that a boy was killed once simply for sneezing.” The Gardner pipes in.
Emma laughs, “Yeah, but to be fair I heard that he actually sneezed on the King.”
The trio continues to bicker back and forth, and at some point I tune them out as I shovel food into my mouth. I finish eating in just a couple minutes and quickly get up to leave.
John is probably already waiting for me outside the King’s quarters. The thought makes me rush, not wanting to keep him waiting for too long. My hypothesis is proven correct as I round the corner into the large corridor that leads to the King and Second’s suites and find John standing outside the pair of large oak doors.
“Sorry I’m late,” I apologize. “I ate some breakfast before heading over.”
John shoots me a smile, his shoulders rising in a quick shrug. “No worries! Just got here a minute ago myself.”
As I come up next to him I notice that his signature messy hair has been combed back, and it even looks as if the ends have been tripped. Surprised, I bring my gaze down over his body, seeing that he is wearing his finest shirt and his black shoes appear to have been polished.
“Why are you so uh-,” I stammer, trying to find the right work. “Cleaned up?”
John tenses and I watch as his cheeks turn a light shade of red. He gives me a crooked, embarrassed smile and brings his hand up behind his neck, fingering the short ends of his hair.
Audibly huffing, he looks down the hallway, avoiding looking at me. “I thought that if I cleaned myself up that I would be less likely to be chosen.”
John’s always been a bit of a worrywart, but this is excessive even for him. Holding back a frown, I give John a soft smile that I hope is comforting.
“Well, you look very nice! I’ll take the King’s suites if you want to work on the Second’s? Then we can head down to get dinner after.” I suggest, attempting to change the subject.
John agrees, and we part ways to begin our work. Typically there is a Beast on guard to make note of the time we enter and exit, as well as who goes into which set of suites, but none are present today. I’ve been in charge of cleaning the suites with John since we were 14, and over the years the guard has gotten more relaxed.
I heave open the large door, pressing my shoulder into it for extra support. It opens just enough for me to fit through, and I slip inside, the door slamming behind me with a loud thud.
Glancing around the entryway, I am pleasantly surprised to see that the King has kept his shoes tidy, and the small table along the left wall is free of clutter. I continue down the hallway until it opens up into the living room.
“Oh.” I mumble to myself, looking over the mess that has become this room. Empty bottles are strewn about, and multiple photos lay haphazardly on the couch and table. The television has been left on, some drama romanticizing the Beasts’ invasion some 200 years ago, and there are half eaten plates sitting on the bookshelves that line the far left wall.
Knowing how important the photos are to the King, I decide to start there first to make sure nothing spills on them as I clean. I’m surprised that he took them out in the first place. King Richard was looking at them daily after the death of his Queen, but in the past couple couple years stopped looking at them all together.
I make sure to grab them all carefully, flipping them so they are all facing the same direction, before placing them back in the albums that they were taken from. I learned years ago which photos belong to which albums, but still take my time, making sure not to misplace any.
With the photos safely ticked away, I make quick work with the rest of the room. The bottles and leftover food all thrown away in garbages, the television channel changed back to the news before being switched off, leftover plates stacked up to be taken down to the kitchen. Before I know it I’m finishing up the dusting and bringing the full trash back to the front door.
Thankfully, the living room was the only room in poor shape, and I’m able to finish up most of my cleaning within a couple of hours.
Approaching the front door, I ball up my hand into a fist and bang against it a couple of times. Usually, the Beast on guard is able to open it for me, but since he’s gone today I have to rely on John.
I spent a good 2 years convinced that if I tried hard enough I would be able to pry open the heavy front doors, but eventually I gave up and accepted that while I can push them open just enough to slip inside, I don’t have enough strength to pull them towards me to get out.
John doesn’t come to open the door, and after a couple more bangs I accept that he is probably still cleaning and I need to sit and wait. Hopefully he is not much longer, I really don’t want to miss dinner two nights in a row.
Already I can feel my hunger, my stomach has been rumbling for the past two or so hours and within the past 30 minutes I’ve began to feel the sharp pains return. Even the thought of eating some food has me salivating. In a moment of weakness, I contemplate digging through the trash and eating some of the leftovers that the King didn’t finish, but even as I think it I know that I won’t actually do it. The punishment would be too great if I was caught.
Every few minutes I give a couple pounds on the front door, not knowing when to expect John to leave the Second’s quarters. After waiting for what feel like an hour, I hear the door groan, a sign that it is about to open, and quickly step backwards and begin gathering the trash bags in my hands.
“Took you long enough!” I exclaim, “I was starting to get worried that we would miss-,”
The words die in my throat as I look up to see the King standing in front of me, his hand holding the door open with ease, a mocking smirk spreading across his face as he realizes that I’ve been trapped inside.
“Come on out. I need to speak to both you and that young man you clean with.” He steps aside, giving me space to squeeze past him into the main corridor.
I sign in relief as I realize that I am not going to be punished for speaking to him in such a way. As I exit his quarters, I spot John standing against the far wall to my left. He refuses to meet my eye, opting instead to stare at his overly shined shoes.
I make my way over to him, dropping the garbage bags to my right and bringing my hands behind my back. I bow my head, showing respect to the King, before looking back up at him. I see John do the same out of the corner of my eye.
“Given the announcement this morning, I am sure that you are aware of what I need to speak to you two about. You two have been chosen to transfer to the Ziad castle. It was a hard decision, and you two were not among my top choices, but King Heloix specifically requested we send our best servants.” He informs us, a slight frown etched onto his face.
I don’t move, my mind trying to wrap around what he’s just told us. Seconds pass, the hallway silent as the King watches us. I clear my throat, the sound reverberating throughout the long corridor.
“When do we leave?” I finally muster up the courage to ask, wincing as my voice cracks slightly.
King Richard purses his lips, eyes darting between the John and I. John shuffles his feet, the movement subtle, while I fiddle with my fingers behind my back in a futile attempt to comfort myself.
Hope you enjoy! Please let me know if you spot any typos of if anything doesn’t make sense.